Last week, social media posts began circulating claiming an Orthodox church had been set on fire in the village of Novopoltavka, in southern Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region.
The posts were accompanied by video of a church engulfed in flames.
Social media users claimed it was a parish church of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church but declared independence following Moscow’s February 2022 invasion.
These posts attributed the alleged act of arson to Ukrainian radicals, “schismatics” or Ukrainian security forces.
On April 7, Russia’s Embassy in the United Kingdom shared the video of the burning church on its Facebook page with the following commentary:
“Another Orthodox church burned down in Ukraine. This time a cruel fate befell a church of the canonical UOC (Ukrainian Orthodox Church) in the village of Novopoltavka. The footage shows people watching in horror at the burning church, which was set on fire by either security forces or dissenters.”
That is false.
The video actually shows a church burning in the Russian village of Ilyinka a decade ago.
Video of the church fire in Ilyinka is available on YouTube and corresponds to the footage shared by the Russia’s U.K. embassy and others.
The Associated Press reported on April 7 that the video of the church fire was first posted to YouTube on January 23, 2013, and identified the fire as having taken place at the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God in Ilyinka, in Russia’s Astrakhan region.
AP also found a contemporaneous post by a local district administration website describing the Ilyinka church fire.
The church was later rebuilt.
The Ukrainian government’s Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security confirmed that the video showed a church burning in Russia, not Ukraine.
“With such fakes, the Russians seek to discredit Ukrainians and weaken the fight against Russian influence,” the center said.
“Ukrainians are tolerant of different religions and do not destroy churches.”
Without explanation, the post of the burning church is no longer visible on the Russia’s embassy's Facebook page. It has been archived online.
The false claim that a church was burned down in Novopoltavka fits into a pattern of Russian disinformation. Russian President Vladimir Putin and others have falsely claimed the Orthodox faith is being persecuted in Ukraine.
As Polygraph.info recently reported, Sergey Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, has spread the false conspiracy theory that the West and Ukraine are seeking to destroy the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
The allegation that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains under the sway of the Moscow Patriarchate has been a bone of contention in Ukraine.
Dozens of Ukrainian Orthodox Church priests have faced investigation or criminal proceedings for allegedly collaborating with Russian forces or supporting Moscow’s war effort.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church monasteries, churches and other related sites have been raided across the country.
The issue is the institutional link between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Russia, the aggressor state, during a time of war.
Russia has spun the situation to falsely claim there is a war on the Orthodox faith.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank said Moscow has weaponized religion “in order to frame Ukraine as evil and position Russia as the protector of Orthodox Christian values.”
Russian state media have also falsely claimed that NATO, a 31-member military alliance of which the United States is a member, is at odds with the Orthodox Church, and that the West is attempting to “counter Orthodoxy.”
By contrast, a report released in February by the Kyiv-based Institute for Religious Freedom found “at least 494 religious buildings, theological institutions, and sacred places [had been] wholly destroyed, damaged, or looted by the Russian military” in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
The report said Russian occupiers had particularly targeted “believers of evangelical churches in Ukraine,” portraying them as "American spies," "sectarians" and "enemies of the Russian Orthodox people.”
The report also documented damage to 143 buildings owned by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and to 34 buildings owned by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is fully independent from the Russian Orthodox Church.
The largest number of churches, mosques and synagogues were destroyed in the Donetsk region, one of the four regions that Russia attempted to illegally annex last year.