UKRAINE — As the front lines of war in Ukraine keep shifting, Christians from a number of Protestant churches in areas now under Russian separatist control are reporting harassment from soldiers and officials. Some say they have been forced to leave their buildings. Church leaders believe the Russians regard all Protestant churches as planted by the United States, and see the Russian Orthodox Church alone as having legitimacy.
Release International and its partners support persecuted Christians around the world and in Ukraine. One partner, who is based in Ukraine, has been describing what it’s like to be a Christian in that country in areas under attack. Andrew Boyd has this report.
In areas of Ukraine that have come under Russian separatist control, many evangelicals consider themselves at risk. Some have been forced out, and some who have left have not been allowed to return.
Church buildings have been confiscated, and evangelical Christians forbidden from gathering.
A Release International partner reports four churches in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian separatists are now facing harassment.
Armed men have conducted searches, confiscated equipment, demanded registration documents, and forced church members to leave their building.
In Manhush, 30 kilometres from Mariupol, Voice of the Martyrs say Russian soldiers drove Christians out of their prayer house and rehabilitation centre. They did the same elsewhere.
A church minister in Vasylivka told Release International’s partners that Russian officers came and registered everyone. They said they were closing the church and there would be no further meetings. They took away laptops and phones – and said the matter would not end there.
In areas under Russian occupation, restrictions appear to be patchy. Some churches are able to continue to worship freely. One church leader believes the Russian authorities may be targeting churches with Ukrainian registration.
Since 2014, when Russian separatists declared independence in Donetsk and Luhansk, they required Protestant churches to register with the authorities.
One church leader explained that they seem to regard everything Protestant as from
the United States, and say only the Russian Orthodox Church has the right to function in areas under Russian control.
Another Release International partner, ‘Pavel’ – not his real name – has been keeping a close eye on the situation in Mariupol. He says around 90 per cent of Christians in the city were able to escape.
Some who remain are continuing to meet in their homes, despite the occupation.
Pavel tells us that many Ukrainian Christians who remain are reaching out to help others under attack. It has cost some their lives. But their witness has had a profound effect on those who have observed the sacrifices they are willing to make.
Even as the missiles rained down, one church in Mariupol was providing food, water and accommodation for local people, not just Christians. Some became Christians as a result, including one rescued from a burning basement. Two of those church members were killed by Russian explosives as they delivered relief aid.
One pastor told Pavel that since the war began churches have had more opportunity to share the gospel with their neighbours than ever before.
He was able to visit a church in western Ukraine. ‘Every night,’ he says, ‘it was full of people praying. There is no despair. Christians are a special sort of people who always have hope.
‘Ukrainian Christians are praying for security today and for revival for the future.’ He says, ‘We are expecting God to answer our prayers.’
Real freedom for Christians began in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago. Some Christians chose the opportunity to leave, fearing that window of freedom would be short-lived. Some warned Russia would return and attempt to re-establish her empire. It seems they were right.
But, says Pavel, ‘The Ukrainian people have a strong belief and hope for their country’s future. Many who were working outside Ukraine have returned to fight. And people who left because of the war are expecting to return.’
Pavel is a partner of Release International which is supporting persecuted Christians around the world. From Ukraine support has been going out to Christians in Central Asia.
The war has made this more difficult. Christians can no longer travel for meetings, training and fellowship. But they’re still in daily communication.
More than 5 million people have now been driven out of Ukraine. But Pavel is convinced that Ukrainian Christians who have been driven overseas will be active in reaching out to their countrymen who’ve had to leave their land.
‘Pray for peace,’ he says, ‘But not at any price. Freedom can be costly. Up to now, Ukrainians may not have appreciated our freedom enough.
‘Local churches have to understand that the time of crisis is also the time of greatest opportunity. Christians need wisdom to know how to use the time wisely.’
That word to Ukraine is one that all of us need to hear.
- Global News Alliance, Ukrainian Christians Harassed by Russian Separatists
- Release International, Official Website