The whole world follows the latest matches of the World Cup in Russia. This interest is far from being only sporting. After the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, an invasion of Ukraine began.
Obviously, the football tournament is part of the Russian game in geopolitics. Russia wages wars in Ukraine and Syria and commits acts of sabotage in Europe and the USA. But its major front is against its own people that are being held captive in fear and slavery. They were deprived of almost all freedoms, including freedom of conscience. But for the time being they have left the freedom to support football as a mockery. That is why for many people, including myself, the World Cup is causing mixed feelings, although it promises to be a grand event.
Many people compare it to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. In both cases, guests from all around the world are hosted by countries that violate international agreements, as well as rights and freedoms; they also commit offenses against other countries, their own people, and against humanity and humaneness. Over the past few years the parallels between Russia and Germany have been drawn more frequently. Communism and Fascism were very similar. And today Russia is learning a great deal from Nazi Germany in disregarding the international law and using propaganda, manipulation, provocations, and aggression against the neighbors under the guise of protection of the “fellow countrymen.” Both regimes exploited sports as a means of propaganda. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson recently referred to it and caused the fury of the Kremlin.
I myself received a warming not long ago from my Russian colleagues for comparing Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. I was told that such comparisons are strictly prohibited and I could be denied an entry to Russia next time I wish to entry it. Nevertheless, the parallels are obvious.
They are seen also in the fact that the underground church was active in Nazi Germany. Both in the Soviet Union and in the present-day Russia God’s church survived and will survive in any circumstances. And the testimony of the church would be used as an instrument for the salvation of many millions of Russians including those who are in the Kremlin.
That’s why the World Cup in Russia is not only the last freedom for the enslaved people, but also for the churches — to use this massive event for an active mission.
It’s not by accident that the speaker for all Russian Protestants, Bishop Sergey Ryakhovskiy (apart from heading up the biggest evangelical association of Russia, he is also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation and a member of the Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations), is encouraging all Russian churches to join in fasting and prayer on June 17 “to chasten the adversaries”: “Today we are witnessing evangelical churches in different regions of the country being put under pressure. According to information from the lawyers of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, in the last two years, there have been more than 600 cases! Basically today we are talking about discrimination and impediment to freely profess one’s faith and worship the Lord in a number of Russian regions.… We believe that not only is it our legal right, but also that the blessing of our land and prosperity of the people directly depends on how much the country and the people are open to preaching the gospel.”
I don’t know who the bishop referred to when he talked about “adversaries,” but fasting and prayer are very timely. It wasn’t specifically designed to coincide with the World Cup but was established mainly to respond to the anti-missionary campaign. In spite of the persecutions the churches were still planning to take an active part in sharing the gospel during the World Cup. This prayer marathon was initiated by РОСХВЕ (Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith — Pentecostals). Other evangelical unions were also invited to join in. We know that the churches of all regions of Russia participated in this prayer which is 11 time zones so it was a continuous prayer chain. An interesting fact is that the churches that participated in the prayer day were the churches that were in the good books with the authorities but they understood that they needed to pray for neighbors as they could be next on the blacklist. Pastor Sergey Kireyev, an authorized representative of the bishop of РОСХВЕ in Penza Oblast who earlier was known for his loyalty to Putin commented, “Constructive relations between religious confessions, authorities, and the society have been established in Penza Oblast. Yet we know that the situation is not stable in other regions so that day we were in prayer for our brothers.”
Not all of the evangelical churches took a chance in publicly announcing the prayer campaign “to chasten the adversaries” for fear of attracting too much attention from the authorities. But the majority of churches (and that’s many thousands!) are praying for the freedom to share the gospel and for the successful evangelism during the World Cup, among which are hundreds of Mission Eurasia partner churches.
These days we received news from Yekaterinburg, Russia that police detained a group of Christian youth involved in Scripture distribution and seized over 200 copies of the Gospel of John. They are now being charged with “missionary activity.» We know about number of similar cases.
And we know from church history in the former Soviet Union that persecution from the government fueled the churches’ fervor for missions, and external challenges motivated young leaders to be even more creative in sharing the gospel. I remember that during Soviet times believers used all events for spreading the gospel and turned wedding ceremonies and funeral processions into massive evangelism. And now Russian evangelicals use their Soviet experience for this crucial moment.
Behind World Cup tournament and geopolitical game it is important to see a more important competition — for the souls of people, for their freedom and dignity. That’s why what is happening in Russia is really worthy of our very close attention — during the tournament and especially after it, especially after it.