Skip to content

“Ukraine should create institute of alternative (non-military) service”, – Serhiy Afanasyev

    After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by russian troops, discussions about alternative (non-military) service became more frequent. Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine declares the right of a citizen to alternative (non-military) service based on his/her religious beliefs. In particular, according to the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious association, they are not allowed to take up arms and go to war. Serhiy Afanasyev, a Jehovah’s Witness, told us about the exercise of the right to alternative (non-military) service under martial law and whether this right can be abused, as well as about the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses and prospects of this religious community in Ukraine.

    Mr. Serhii, could you please tell us about the life of the community before February 24, 2022? It is also interesting to know how many people attended services regularly. 

    I am not an official representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I can only share my own impressions and experience. Until February 24, 2022, Ukraine was in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Jehovah’s Witnesses abandoned the usual format of worship and missionary activities. Meetings were held in ZOOM, and preaching was carried out through letters, phone calls, and informal communication. In 2021, there were about 128 442 active Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, in 2022 – 122 694, and in 2023 – 105 235. Statistics are based on only those Jehovah’s Witnesses who regularly file a report on their ministry. The actual number of people who share views of Jehovah’s Witnesses is much larger. Reduction in the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2023 is mainly due to emigration abroad because of the war. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religious organization with a fixed membership, messengers who stay for more than three months on the territory of another congregation and intend to stay there for a long time should join the congregation at their place of residence. This rule is not “ironclad”, and messengers who emigrated because of the war were first counted as members of the congregations to which they had previously belonged. With the pandemic over, Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world and in Ukraine have begun to restore their usual forms of worship and preaching. Now, in most regions, meetings are held in Kingdom Halls with live streaming on ZOOM. As the full-scale war has been lasting for three years, most of the displaced persons have joined the congregations in the countries they are staying in, and this fact affects the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine in the official report.

    Hostilities on the territory of Ukraine have caused a decrease in the number of parishioners in almost all religious communities. How has the war affected the activities of your community in general?

    Two weeks before the war started, after media reports of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, Jehovah’s Witnesses were advised to have “emergency kits”, food and fuel reserves, and to keep their cars fueled. Almost immediately after the outbreak of the war, Jehovah’s Witnesses organized assistance for their believers and their families who became internally displaced persons. Kingdom Halls in major cities, including Lviv, were turned into provisional shelters for refugees. The same procedure was followed in neighboring countries: Jehovah’s Witnesses arriving in other countries were met by fellow believers at the border and, depending on the circumstances and legislation, were taken to refugee centers or accommodated among fellow believers.  The same system was in effect in Lviv.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses take care of their personal security and security of their meetings. Long before the full-scale invasion, evacuation trainings were held in Kingdom Halls. If an air raid alarm sounds during the meeting, it is suspended, and messengers and community members move to the nearest shelter.

    I know that numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses, including internally displaced persons, have been establishing public organizations since 2014-2015 to help internally displaced persons and people who are now in the frontline regions. New people from among the internally displaced persons attended meetings. Almost all of them seek adaptation in a new place and get the necessary support and assistance. Jehovah’s Witnesses are ordinary people and they suffer the consequences of the war just like all Ukrainians, although religious views of Jehovah’s Witnesses help them to better overcome such difficulties. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses are used to work and earn money for their living, so the unemployment experience and dependence on other people is quite unusual for them. Almost all of my friends who have emigrated abroad are trying to integrate into the society of the countries where they stay: they learn the language, look for a job.

    According to Ukrainian law, members of some religious organizations, based on their beliefs, have the opportunity to undergo alternative (non-military) service, this applies in particular to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Is it possible to exercise this right in a real-case scenario?

    Due to the war, Jehovah’s Witnesses had to interact with the Military Conscription Offices, and this is where the problems occurred. Although Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine guarantees the right to substitute military service for alternative (non-military) service, the exercise of this right during martial law is almost impossible, as the law “On Alternative Service” was adopted in 1991, long before the Constitution, and according to this law, alternative service is a substitute for military service for a regular term, which is not applicable during martial law. Alternative service may be restricted during martial law by the Decree of the President. However, neither the content nor the nature of such restrictions is defined by the Ukrainian legislation. The Decree of the President on martial law has no restrictions on alternative service. During the discussion regarding the new draft laws on military service and mobilization, it is mentioned that military service for a regular term will be canceled and other forms of military training will be implemented. However, there are no changes with regard to alternative service, despite the fact that the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations and the State Service for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience have both emphasized its necessity. The institution of alternative service is vital for Ukrainian society, because without it, the right to freedom of conscience and religion cannot be exercised, and this right is one of the fundamental ones. The lack of the right to alternative service makes Jehovah’s Witnesses face a choice once again: either betrayal of their principles or criminal liability. 

    I was informed of two judgments of acquittal passed by district courts in cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses. These judgments have not yet entered into force, as they are still under appeal. A few cases were closed at the stage of criminal proceedings due to the lack of corpus delicti. Unfortunately, there is one judgment with a real sentence that has not yet entered into force. As for administrative cases, court judgments are also varied: there are judgments in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses and judgments in favor of the Military Conscription Offices. Most judgments are being appealed, and there is no firm position of the Administrative Court of Appeal yet. The main problem in the cases of conscientious objectors is the unwillingness or inability of judges to correctly apply judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, which are the source of law for Ukrainian courts. The most difficult situation is faced by people who are members of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ families and largely share views of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but for some reason have not yet become Jehovah’s Witnesses or have been expelled from the religious organization. However, according to the Constitution, the right to alternative service shall be granted based on religious beliefs that contradict the performance of military duty. Courts pay more attention to the fact of membership in a religious organization than to the analysis of a person’s beliefs. On the other hand, courts may declare that a person has not proved the fact of an insurmountable conflict between his or her beliefs and the performance of military duty. The Criminal Court of Appeal believes that documentary evidence of membership in a religious organization is not enough and a person “must demonstrate the existence of relevant deep, sincere and consistent religious beliefs by certain data, in addition to his/her own words and statements of family and friends”. Beliefs are expressed by a person, but it is impossible to prove their existence or non-existence. Legislation does not define criteria for the depth, sincerity and consistency of religious beliefs, and procedures for assessing religious beliefs have not been developed. Since the judgments of the CCA must be passed taking into account judgments of lower courts, there is a risk that sentences will depend on the court’s subjective assessment of the person’s beliefs. Courts also pay attention to the time when a person became a Jehovah’s Witness: if it was after the start of the full-scale invasion, the court may consider such actions as an attempt to evade mobilization. However, courts do not take into account the fact that a person cannot become a Jehovah’s Witness immediately; he or she must undergo religious training, change his/her lifestyle, and only when elders become convinced that his/her understanding of the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses and his/her lifestyle meet the requirements for baptism, the person is allowed to be baptized and becomes a regular member of the congregation.

    Ukraine should create institute of alternative (non-military) service. Conscientious objectors can be trained to work in rescue units, civil defense, medical care, etc. Alternative service should be full-fledged and really important institution, and shall not be interpreted as a way to punish conscientious objectors or shall not be implemented only to avoid questions from international organizations about Ukraine’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations. I believe that concerns over the possibility of alternative service being used by evaders are not justified. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not interested in the number of parishioners, but rather in their quality, so people who pretend to be Jehovah’s Witnesses will not stay in the congregation for long.

    As you know, the team of the Religion on Fire project records cases of damage and destruction of religious sites as a result of the full-scale invasion. According to our database, there are several dozens of Kingdom Halls destroyed or damaged in several regions of Ukraine. Do you know how the restoration of the buildings is going and whether it has influenced the format of the service and the number of people attending? 

    Jehovah’s Witnesses have experience in responding to emergencies, and therefore damaged Kingdom Halls and houses of believers are restored quite quickly. These works are performed by construction brigades of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Religious Center and by Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves who are volunteers from all over Ukraine. Also, Jehovah’s Witnesses keep implementing planned construction of Kingdom Halls in Ukraine. If the Kingdom Hall is destroyed or damaged, or there is a constant danger of shelling, meetings are held online. The fact that religious buildings are damaged does not affect the number of believers.

    Do people not leave the regions under shelling to save their lives and lives of their relatives? 

    I must have misunderstood the question. Yes, of course, shelling and damages to property make people leave dangerous regions, and the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine is decreasing. Naturally, in such a situation, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not cease to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, although some may lose faith because of the war.

    Do you know anything about the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the occupied territories in view of the ban on this religious organization in russia? Are there any regulations of the occupation authorities that regulate the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses?

    In violation of international regulations, russia applies its criminal law in the occupied territories. Before the outbreak of the full-scale war, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the occupied territories conducted their activities quite explicitly. Kingdom Halls as public places had signs and were identified on Google maps, so it was not difficult to find them. After the outbreak of the war, documents of the congregations, which contained information about the believers, their number, etc., were destroyed, but some documents could have fallen into the hands of the occupation authorities. Occasionally, the FSS or the occupation administrations publish information about the “detection” of Kingdom Halls, documents showing that Jehovah’s Witnesses financed Ukrainian armed forces, or report the detection and detention of groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is hard to confirm the accuracy of such information, as in most cases these are propaganda messages. The FSS units engaged in the “fight against extremism” in the occupied territories must provide certain performance indicators, so they can frame up cases and news without any concern for their accuracy. Activities in the occupied territories are only possible in deep underground. Now it is impossible to calculate how many Jehovah’s Witnesses stayed in the occupied territories. In my opinion, there are only a few people.

    Russia is not even trying to keep the illusion of legality in the occupied territories. While in the russian federation the property of banned religious organizations is formally confiscated based on a court ruling, in the occupied territories it is declared “ownerless” and transferred to russian “patriotic organizations”. Recently, the Kingdom Hall in Berdiansk was confiscated in this way. Occupation administrations and russian media spread myths about the “evacuation of Jehovah’s Witness elders who worked for the CIA”, “Jehovah’s Witnesses collecting information about important infrastructure facilities”, etc.

    In the case of natural disasters or war, Jehovah’s Witnesses are always advised to leave dangerous areas and be prepared to evacuate if people live in such regions. Obviously, it is not easy for everyone to leave their homes. It is especially difficult for the elderly people to evacuate.

    What do you think will happen to the community after Ukraine’s victory?

    While the war in Ukraine is on, we can observe dangerous trends regarding the right to freedom of religion. I mean the growing level of religious intolerance, which can be reflected in legislation. These trends may deepen depending on how long the war lasts. The war traumatizes society, and several generations of Ukrainians will have to deal with its consequences. I hope that constitutional norms and values will remain inviolable, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses will be able to feel as free and safe in Ukraine as they used to.

    Thank you, Mr. Serhiy, for this interview.

    The interviewer:  Uliana Sevastianiv

    The conversation was recorded on June 20, 2024

    The interview was a part of the project “Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.