Categories
Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Ukraine’s Prison Fellowship Extended to Russian POWs

Image: Courtesy of Prison Fellowship Ukraine

Vyacheslav Kogut was so angry he could spit.

The Russian invasion once again drew him out of his normal ministry as executive director of Prison Fellowship Ukraine (PFU) and into relief work. The military counterattack had just liberated another village on the eastern front, where several civilians had been shot.

The source of his ire, however, was his summons back to prison.

“We have Russian prisoners of war who need clothing,” informed the warden.

“I’ll bring them skirts and dresses,” Kogut shot back, grumbling.

Internally seething at having to leave his injured compatriots, he then remembered his Bible: If your enemy is hungry, feed him—as well as, I needed clothes, and you clothed me.

He went into the storehouse that collected goods for displaced Ukrainians and took the best of its donated items. Security guards at the prison were amazed at the quality. And in addition to the regular food and supplies they offer to Russian POWs in ongoing weekly visits, his team now adds candy and sweets.

“It is a way to show many people, besides these prisoners, that God is love,” said Kogut. “And when they go back to Russia, they can never again return with guns and hatred.”

Affiliated with the international network of the Chuck Colson–founded ministry, PFU began work in Ukraine in 2002. The nation is home to a prison population of 48,000 in 85 still-surviving jails, and Kogut says his team ministers in all of them.

It was not always so. Despite its ecumenical approach from the beginning, PFU’s evangelical orientation worried some prison officials. But consistent ministry to inmates and guards alike won favor, as did the scope of entertainment options presented.

Soccer teams visited from Brazil, Eurovision stars put on performances, and—dearer to the hearts of the prisoners—summer camps were held to care for their children.

And in 2008, PFU began teaching courses on chaplaincy, receiving certificates from the central government to enter any prison in Ukraine. Within two years, Kogut said, the prejudice was overcome.

“Our mission is dependent on unity,” said Constantin Panteley, PFU secretary and a priest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. “We only bring misunderstanding about Christianity if we are divided.”

Many prisons now have separate chapels for Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant services. But inmates often are a product of Soviet irreligion and have only nominal attachment to a denomination. Panteley has seen many converted, who then choose their favored service.

“We will win this war because of our unity of differences,” he said, drawing contrast to the persecution meted out to non-Orthodox in occupied areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. “Unlike Russia, we appreciate freedom.”

For instance, a priest may serve as a substitute if a Pentecostal pastor is not available to minister to an inmate. Even clergy from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which did not cut ties with Moscow until May this year, have stepped in when needed. Their cooperation survived the damage from the 2014 Russian-backed separatist movement in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea.

The strife, however, severed 20 percent of Ukraine’s prisons from the central government. But even in the contested region, PFU maintained connections with prisoners. Some hid cell phones to continue counseling. Sympathetic local citizens secretly delivered Bibles.

It all came to a halt with the Russian invasion. “The war resulted in a severe breakdown of the supply chain for food and medicine into prisons,” said James Ackerman, president of Prison Fellowship USA. “And as you might imagine, prisons…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 14, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

What's your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s