When Russia seized control of Crimea in 2014, its forces* took control of key military and government sites on the Ukrainian peninsula. They also targeted another institution -- the branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is centered in Kyiv and not Moscow.
The Russian forces singled out the churches, looting some, while calling their leaders "Nazis" and "rozkolniki," or "those who broke away," a reference to the church's split with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).
Today, leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP), as it is formally known, say the de facto authorities in Crimea are persecuting what is left of their church, pushing them to the brink of oblivion.
"The Russian occupation authorities have done everything so that the religious atmosphere on the peninsula is similar to theirs [Russia]; that is, loyal and controllable," Archbishop Yevstratiy (Zorya), an official spokesman of the church, said in a recent interview with RFE/RL.
Archbishop Klyment, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate in Crimea, told RFE/RL that eight churches and four priests were all that's left of their church on the Black Sea peninsula.
Only those demonstrating fealty to Moscow enjoy religious freedom in Crimea, according to a leading Ukrainian-based human rights group.
Others speak of a wider campaign.
According to the U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House, the persecution of the church is just one element of the Kremlin's crackdown in Crimea on anything associated with Ukraine, while Human Rights Watch says the Russian authorities in Crimea have created a climate of fear and repression."
For many Ukrainians, it is just one battle in the Kremlin's war against an independent Ukraine and comes as President Petro Poroshenko pushes to institutionalize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's break with Moscow. "Ukraine is closer than ever before to establishing its own autocephalous local church," Poroshenko said on April 17 during a meeting with Ukrainian party leaders.
Moscow-Friendly Church Favored
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is offered any and all aid by the local de facto authorities, according to Archbishop Yevstratiy. "Their priests were even honored for their role in the annexation of the peninsula," he adds.
The new Crimean leaders have created bureaucratic roadblocks to filter out religious organizations suspect of disloyalty.
After the annexation in 2014, they demanded all religious organizations and communities in Crimea reregister under Russian law, including a requirement to add in official papers that Crimea is part of Russia, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).
"Our church did not recognize Crimea as Russia. We refuse to register according to their legislation," explains Archbishop Yevstratiy, adding that to do so would effectively legitimize Russia's occupation.
Priests from the church have rejected Russian citizenship, prompting many to flee to other parts of Ukraine. All of this makes it impossible for the church to pay for communal charges, with this then being used to enable confiscation of the property, according to KHPG.
Remaining Churches Targeted
Archbishop Klyment says there are three cases against the church now under way in Crimea. "One regarding a church in Sevastopol; another against a church in the village of Perevalne; the third on the legality of the actions of court bailiffs, who on August 31,  in fact, committed robbery on the administration of the diocese," he explains, referring to a police action on the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha, the church's main cathedral in Simferopol.
Early on that fateful day, armed men, some masked, acting on orders from the Russian authorities who control Crimea, burst into the cathedral in a bid to seize control, injuring Archbishop Klyment in a scuffle when he tried to block them. They carted off icons, crosses, rugs, and other valuables.
The action came after the Russia-installed courts in Crimea ruled in January 2017 that the church had to vacate the first floor of the cathedral and pay a million-ruble ($16,000) fine for failing to reregister with the new authorities.
Symbol Of Ukrainian Identity
Archbishop Yevstratiy says the church is being targeted by the Kremlin-installed authorities because it is a symbol of Ukrainian identity. "The Kyivan Patriarchate -- it is not just a religious community, but a bulwark of the Ukrainian community. It's for that reason that the UOC-KP is such a thorn in the side to the Kremlin, which is trying in every possible way to limit and evict us from Crimea," he explains.
Freedom House says that "anything associated with Ukraine" is "now taboo" in occupied Crimea. "The Ukrainian language, the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches, Ukrainian political parties, Ukrainian-language media, and virtually anything associated with Ukraine are now taboo in occupied Crimea, making it impossible for residents to enjoy a free social, cultural, and political life," it said in a 2017 report.
"Not only is Ukrainian identity suppressed, but a Russian one is being supported in a far-reaching effort to Russify the peninsula," Freedom House concludes.
Human Rights Watch says the Russian authorities "have severely curtailed human rights protections and created a climate of fear and repression in Crimea."
"The space for free speech, freedom of association, and media in Crimea has shrunk dramatically, and majority of pro-Ukraine activists and media outlets have been forced out. Under international law, Russia as an occupying power bears responsibility for the surge of human rights abuses in Crimea," says Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher in Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.
Where Is Moscow Archbishop?
Metropolitan Lazar under the Moscow Patriarchate in Crimea has largely refrained from commenting on the annexation, or the larger Ukraine-Russia conflict, Archbishop Yevstratiy explains.
But Lazar has been praised more than once by the Kremlin-installed authorities on the peninsula, he continues, adding that Metropolitan Lazar has taken part in official events in Crimea.
Moreover, Lazar is free to travel to the rest of Ukraine to meet metropolitans from all over the country. After the annexation of the peninsula, the Crimean dioceses of the UOC-MP did not formally become the "canonical territory" of the Russian Orthodox Church and remained under the Kyiv Metropolis.
The seizure of Crimea as well as the Euromaidan revolt before it has widened a religious rupture that first emerged during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Primate Filaret broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. He argued that an independent Ukraine deserved a national church truly independent of Moscow.
During the 2014 protests that led to the ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, the clergy of the Kyiv Patriarchate blessed the antigovernment protesters and helped to build barricades themselves.
The Moscow Patriarchate remained above the fray, praying for reconciliation and urging dialogue.
However, the split between the Moscow and Kyiv branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church never received the blessing of the international Orthodox community.
Amid the ongoing conflict with Moscow, Poroshenko is making a fresh push for Bartholomew I, the head of the Pan-Orthodox Council, to recognize the UOC-KP as the sole, official, Orthodox church of Ukraine. "I as president have decided to ask the Ecumenical patriarch, his Holiness [Bartholomew] to grant the 'tomos' of a Ukrainian independent, more precisely, local autocephalous church," Poroshenko said at a meeting with parliamentary party leaders on April 17.
Back in Crimea, despite the current hardships, Archbishop Yevstratiy and others of the church remain defiant and surprisingly upbeat. "We believe that each day brings us closer to the time when in Simferopol, Sevastopol, and other cities on Crimea it will be possible to pray in the Ukrainian language."
*CORRECTION: This article has been amended to remove reference to "Russia-backed separatists" in Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region.