1.As you have been traveling through eastern Ukraine, what are you seeing in terms of the condition of evangelical Christians, churches and ministries? Are you witnessing persecution, and have you experienced any yourself?
Many of my friends, Evangelical church leaders, were kidnapped and tortured. Churches were seized, looted, and burned. Of course, when I visit Eastern Ukraine, there is a risk of being shot at or captured by terrorists. But the largest risks are taken by Christian leaders remaining in captured territory and serving people there. As one Baptist pastor told me, “I can’t leave Donetsk, because my flock is here. We are helping people, feeding the hungry, and continuing to hold services.” Meanwhile most of the largest churches in Donetsk have been seized by terrorists and turned into military bases.
Evangelical Christians in Eastern Ukraine feel that not only is Russia at war against Ukraine, but that the Russian Orthodox Church is at war against Evangelicals. There is even a “Russian Orthodox Army,” which directs its weapons against all cults and sects (which includes all non-Orthodox branches of Christianity), and against all people tied to the West.
2. Is there a story about the persecution of Christians there that stands out the most, which you could share with us?
The best-known case is when four leaders from an Evangelical church in Slavyansk were kidnapped directly from a worship service on Pentecost, then tortured and killed. Two of them were sons of Pastor Alexander Pavenko. And two of them (Viktor Brodarsky and Vladimir Velichko) left behind them three and eight children respectively. According to the terrorists they were killed for helping the Ukrainian army.
The most painful part of the conflict for me personally was the seizure of Donetsk Christian University, where I served as rector for the 2012-2013 academic year. It now serves as a military base for separatists, and they are holding hostages there. At great risk of life the university staff were evacuated. The separatists hold nothing holy.
3. How much danger is there for Christians in eastern Ukraine? What about
in the remainder of the country?
Evangelical leaders in Eastern Ukraine are on the terrorists’ black list, therefore a lot of churches are asking their pastors to leave the Donbas region. However many pastors are remaining in the region or returning in order to serve people in occupied territory. For instance EliseyPronin from Pervomaisk in the Lugansk region had to hide from terrorists who were searching for him, but he couldn’t leave his congregation and he soon returned. Now his church building has been burned and destroyed. Now his congregation has a new ministry – bringing food to the hungry and evacuating those seeking to leave.
There is a so-called hybrid war against Ukraine: because of unannounced attacks by diversionary groups and military units there is no front line – terrorists and Russian forces can show up anywhere in Southern or Eastern Ukraine. Danger is everywhere, it is felt in Kiev and even in Lviv in the far Western part of Ukraine. Mines have been laid in train stations and metro stops. People are being intimidated and killed. Even in social media there is a true war raging.
4. Does the current crisis seem to be making people more open to the Gospel? Do you have any statistics or stories about people who have received salvation through Jesus as a result of this crisis?
All over Ukraine the crisis is opening new doors to search for God and turn to Him. But in Eastern Ukraine we see less openness to God, fewer people praying and repenting. All over Ukraine churches are full of people praying for peace. However in the East there are very few. A prayer marathon in Donetsk, which has been going on since March 2014 brought together a few dozen people, but not thousands. I think that this is because the influence of Soviet atheism and Russian Orthodoxy is very strong in Eastern Ukraine. To them, to be Russian means to be Orthodox, and nothing else is needed – no repentance, no new life.
5. What are you seeing in terms of refugees from eastern Ukraine going either westward in Ukraine, or into Russia? What challenges and opportunities does this present for the church?
A majority of refugees are going to other parts of Ukraine. There are no exact statistics, but the number is in the hundreds of thousands. In Donetsk alone over half of the population has fled, and the population of Donetsk was almost a million before the conflict. Fewer refugees are going to Russia, but their number is still large – about 200,000 (mostly pro-Russian sympathizers). This is a big challenge to churches in Ukraine and Russia – serving refugees, showing them love and sympathy regardless of political views. In both countries churches are involved in the ‘I Care’ project initiated by young Christian leaders. The program includes distributing food to those in need, organizing training seminars for pastors and volunteers, and offering counseling to those traumatized by the conflict.
6. How best may we pray for the church, and for believers, in Ukraine?
There is a great need for prayer for Ukraine and for believers there. Our nation relies on the Church for support, and this is a big test for the Ukrainian Church. Pray for spiritual renewal within our churches, that they can be a true support to our nation, and to promote reconciliation and peace.
7. Is there anything else you think we need to know, or that you want to
tell us, about the situation?
I want to emphasize that this is a fight not only for Ukraine, but for the entire fragile Eurasia region and for revival. Ukraine has sent thousands of missionaries and pastors into Russia alone. If we can defend Ukraine and bring about spiritual revival, it will mutliplythe influence by serving Europe, Russia, and the world.