No, this video doesn’t show Ukrainians setting fire to an Orthodox church
Did Ukrainians really set a Russian Orthodox church on fire? A video purporting to show just that has been circulating online since April 5, 2023. However, it turns out that this video was filmed in Russia more than ten years ago and shows an accidental fire.
If you only have a minute:
- A video of a Russian Orthodox Church on fire has been circulating on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram since April 5, 2023. The caption on the video claims that the church was set on fire by “radical members of the Ukrainian church” in a Ukrainian village.
- In turns out, however, that the same video appears in posts shared back in January 2013. Those posts say the video shows a fire in a Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. Investigators concluded at the time that the fire was an accident.
- The circulation of this video along with accusations that Ukrainians set the church fire comes amidst a backdrop of growing tensions between the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has historically been linked to the patriarchate in Russia. Ukrainian officials believe the Russian Orthodox Church has close links with the Russian government. And because of those accusations, Russia claims that members of the Orthodox Church are being “persecuted” in Ukraine.
The fact-check, in detail
A video showing dozens of people gathered as an Orthodox church goes up in flames has been circulating on social media since April 5, 2023.
The posts claim that the video was filmed in "the village of Novopoltavka", located in the Mykolaiv oblast in southern Ukraine. Posts claim that the church belongs to the "Moscow Patriarchate", like this tweet in English that has been shared more than 1,000 times.
Like many of the posts, this tweet in French, which has been shared more than 400 times, accuses "radical partisans of the Ukrainian Church" of arson. Other posts talk about "Ukronazis" or "Ukrainian heretics”.
Posts featuring the video in German or in Italian have also been shared hundreds of times.
Before appearing on mainstream social media sites, the video was shared on Readovka, a Russian media widely considered to be pro-Kremlin. The video was then picked up by other Russian media outlets like News.ru or Rus-bel.online, and by various Telegram groups (like this channel, which has more than 100,000 followers).
Was this video filmed in Ukraine?
There are actually images online of the church in Novopoltavka, the village where many of the posts claimed the fire had taken place (like this one or this one).
However, there are quite a few differences between the images of the Novopoltavka church online and the church in the video. There’s no fence, the entrance is located at the end of the church and not on the side and the bell tower is square and not octagonal
A fire that happened a decade ago
However, it turns out that, in reality, this video wasn’t filmed in Ukraine. It also wasn’t filmed any time recently.
The tool InVID Weverify (click here to find out how) helped us identify the origin of the video.
Using InVID, we discovered that the same video was posted on the Russian site Videomin.org. This had a link to a YouTube video published on January 23, 2013.
The caption on the video, in Russian, reads "Church on fire in Ilyinka"
We typed in the phrase "Ильинка Церковь пожар" ("fire in the church in Ilyinka" in Russian) into the Russian search engine Yandex. There, we found several articles documenting the fire, like this one, published on the Russian media outlet Volgograd.
A church in southwestern Russia
From these articles, we learned that the fire took place on January 22, 2013. It destroyed a wooden Orthodox church built in the 19th century in Ilyinka, a town in the Astrakhan oblast in southern Russia.
The church was apparently built in honour of "the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.” We compared the video with images of the Ilyinka church available on Wikimedia. The churches look like one and the same.
An investigation into the fire at the time showed that it was caused by an “electrical dysfunction”, according to an article published by Russian media outlet Kaspy info on February 10, 2013, about 15 days after the fire.
That means the fire was accidental and not arson, as claimed in recent posts.
No sign of a fire in the Novopoltavka church
So even if it isn’t the Novopoltavka church in the video… was there actually a fire there?
We typed in the words "fire Novopoltavka" in Russian and Ukrainian on a number of search engines, including Google and Yandex, as well as on Twitter and Facebook.
The only results from our search were posts featuring the video filmed ten years ago in Ilyinka. So we found no credible reports of a recent fire in the church in Novopoltavka.
Ukraine’s Orthodox Church under pressure over links with Russia
The false accusations that Ukrainians set fire to a church in Novopoltavka come against a backdrop of rising tensions between the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian Orthodox churches that have, historically, maintained close links to the Moscow Patriarchate (EOU-PM).
There is some variety among Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Some of them are dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate (EOU-PM), while others are part of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (EOU), which has run independently since 2019.
There are questions about how EOU-PM churches are run and how close their links are with Moscow. Historically attached to Russia, the church decided in May 2022 to cut ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, which is run by a man named Kirill, who is a close friend of Vladimir Putin. On several occasions, Kirill has shown support for the Russian war in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian authorities are currently trying to establish a path between maintaining freedom of religion and pushing Ukrainian churches to distance themselves from Russia.
Recently, Ukrainian authorities told monks who belong to the Monastery of the Caves, an important religious site in Kyiv, to leave the premises.
In the autumn of 2022, the Ukrainian secret services carried out searches at several monasteries. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights later said that they were worried that the state’s actions towards EOU-PM could be “discriminatory”.
For its part, the Russian government both criticises – and uses – the Ukrainian government’s suspicions towards the Orthodox church. After the searches on monasteries last autumn, the communications department of the Moscow Patriarchate said the Ukrainian government had carried out "acts of intimidation" against Ukrainian believers and called for an end to the "persecution". Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov denounced what he called “a war” in Ukraine against the "Russian Orthodox Church".