In advance of Putin’s unilateral declaration of a 36-hour truce over Orthodox Christmas today, Ukrainian seminary leaders shared their reflections on the impact of ten months of unabated conflict.
“War is exhausting—but this exhaustion does not happen overnight,” wrote Roman Soloviy, director of the Eastern European Institute of Theology. “Nevertheless, our mission continues.”
Reviewing his own emotional response since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Soloviy cited the impossible choices forced upon his nation: Save your family or your neighbors? Flee the country or stay and help?
He could not read, listen to music, or watch movies for many months.
The stress only surged as reports proliferated about atrocities, complicated by the frustration that Ukrainian churches could not help everyone. Decisions needed to be made in darkness, while seeking to balance one’s own psychological health.
A Kherson seminary, Tavriski Christian Institute (TCI), was occupied by Russian forces in March and liberated in November. President Valentin Siniy recounted the grim chronology:
January: Talks about the war. Doubts about invasion. February: Team. Responsibility. Daily Zoom calls to pray. March: Massacre. Inhumanity. Generosity: flour, sugar, potatoes, seeds. April–May: Russians want to reconcile, without repentance. Families separated. June–July: Marriages. Fragility of life. Losses. Divorces. August: TCI shelled. Books trashed. Valuables looted. Vandalism. September: New location. Big enrollment. October: Infrastructure destroyed. Nation freezing. Unity. Mutual assistance. November: Liberation. Joy. First trip home. Ruined city.
For his December entry, Siniy wrote: “Christmas is the coming of God into a mean world to mean people. We pray that the Lord will show us how and where to serve.”
Oleksandr Geychenko, meanwhile, chose a different theme for the holiday. Yet it fit perfectly with Siniy’s October observations.
“This year’s Christmas for me is closely associated with the metaphor of light,” wrote the president of Odessa Theological Seminary. “Perhaps, this is my reaction to the uncertain power supply.”
Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) first suggested the holiday truce, while 1,000 US-based faith leaders called for Ukraine to honor it. Nonetheless there has been exchange of shelling along the front lines, and many Ukrainians dismissed Putin’s initiative as a cynical ploy to buy time for his retreating troops. (Foreign analysts instead saw a PR bid for Russian Christian backing.)
But despite the battlefield losses, last month Russia specifically targeted Ukraine’s electrical grid, repeatedly plunging cities and civilians into darkness and cold.
Geychenko had taken his electricity for granted. Now, he sees a spiritual connection. “The light that comes from Jesus not only shines into human darkness,” he wrote, “it also…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 7, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.
Celebrated on January 6 according to the local Orthodox calendar, holiday festivities will be curtailed this year in the disputed Caucasus enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Demonstrations by reported environmental activists from Azerbaijan have closed the one road connecting the mountainous territory to Armenia, and Russian peacekeeping forces have failed to intervene.
Over 100,000 Armenians depend on daily imports of 400 tons of food and medicine to the enclave they call Artsakh. With the blockade of the Lachin corridor now in its third week, local officials are warning of a humanitarian disaster as they implement price controls and ration remaining goods.
But the Christmas tree is lit in the central square of the capital, Stepanakert.
“People will carry on with the traditions as best they can,” said Aren Deyirmenjian, country representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). “But we will reflect the love of a God who stays by your side, even when all goes wrong.”
During a 44-day war with 6,500 casualties in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured three-quarters of its internationally recognized sovereign territory, before Russia engineered a ceasefire. The indigenous Armenian inhabitants controlled the enclave for the previous 30 years, claiming the right of self-determination in an unrecognized 1991 independence referendum.
Following its defeat two years ago, Armenia pursued peace treaties with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey, which had backed their Turkic kin with decisive drone technology. But these were interrupted by further clashes, in which Azerbaijan seized further territory in Nagorno-Karabakh and even along Armenia’s border.
And beginning December 12, Azerbaijani activists set up camp to protest alleged illegal gold and copper mining, exported through Lachin back to Armenia. Terms of the armistice left Russian peacekeepers in charge of the road, with no Azerbaijani oversight.
“We can stay here for months,” stated one demonstrator.
Local residents have reported shortages, with no fruit in Artsakh’s markets—part of the traditional Christmas Eve feast alongside fish, rice pilaf, and raisins. More critically, hospital patients lack essential medicines, with only a handful allowed transfer to facilities in Armenia proper. Gas supplies were cut for three days in the winter cold. And about 1,000 residents were stranded in the border town of Goris—including 18 members of a children’s choir which had performed in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
Azerbaijan has denied it is imposing a blockade. Officials have said that anyone will be allowed travel through the Lachin corridor, upon prior permission and submission to local inspection. If none pass through, they blame the Russians and Armenians.
So far, only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has gained access to Nagorno-Karabakh. Deyirmenjian said the Armenian social affairs ministry contacted the AMAA to participate in the ICRC 10-ton aid delivery, adding 220 pounds of infant formula to the first effort, and 1,100 pounds of rice alongside two tons of sugar in the second.
Upon arrival, the AMAA center in Stepanakert, located near the only Armenian Evangelical church in the enclave, coordinated distribution in the neighborhood, including its 125 members.
So far, local morale is high.
“Our office manger told me: ‘We are happy we are on this side of the blockade,’” Deyirmenjian said. “It gave me chills.” Garegin Hambardzumyan concurs. A priest in the Armenian Apostolic church, he heads the Oriental Orthodox denomination’s Department for the Preservation of Cultural and Spiritual Values of Artsakh. Generations of Armenians have lived in the rugged, mountainous land for a thousand years, he said. They will not be…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on January 4, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.
Ukraine, a bastion of religious freedom, is moving to possibly outlaw a church.
President Volodymyr Zelensky began the month by endorsing a draft law to “make it impossible” for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), canonically linked to Moscow, to operate. His December 1 decree followed raids on several monasteries under the UOC’s jurisdiction.
Security services searched over 350 buildings and investigated 850 people.
“We will ensure complete independence for our state. In particular, spiritual independence,” stated Zelensky. “We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul.”
The reaction from Russia was swift—but also illustrated the issue.
“The current Ukrainian authorities have openly become enemies of Christ and the Orthodox faith,” stated Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, was more specific, accusing Ukraine of “waging a war on the Russian Orthodox Church” (ROC).
His comment prompted a UOC spokesman to assert his church is not Russian.
The raids—centered on the 11th-century Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra complex, known as the Monastery of the Caves—uncovered large amounts of cash, “dubious” Russian citizens, and leaflets calling on people to join the Russian army, according to Ukrainian authorities. Other material cited as evidence included prayer texts of ROC patriarch Kirill and a video of hymn singing that celebrated Russia’s “awakening.”
Kirill has publicly blessed Russia’s invasion of its neighboring nation, even promising forgiveness of sin to soldiers who die in the war. Security services also described finding UOC priests in possession of literature denying Ukraine’s right to exist and contacting Russian intelligence agents.
Sanctions were announced on at least 10 UOC members, including the governor of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a UNESCO heritage site. Another, the archbishop of the Kirovohrad diocese, was accused of subversive activities.
Zelensky stated the government would examine the Lavra’s jurisdiction.
Since then, sanctions have followed on seven additional members, while the UOC stated that local authorities have issued over 70 orders to ban its activities.
In 2019, the newer Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was formed from a merger of two breakaway jurisdictions from the ROC, after which it was declared an autocephalous (independent) body by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
The new church was rejected by Moscow and accepted by Greece and other national churches, while some in the Orthodox world stayed neutral. The UOC, meanwhile, continued under the leadership of the Moscow patriarchate.
Russia’s invasion in February 2022, however, placed the UOC in a bind. Although it is the largest church in Ukraine with about 12,000 parishes, polls indicate it now receives the support of only 4 percent of the population. As a further sign of its decline in favor, only 13 percent of Ukrainian citizens of Russian ethnicity support the church.
In May, Metropolitan Onufriy, head of the UOC, declared its parishes were no longer subordinate to the ROC, though he maintained Eucharistic communion with Moscow. By then, 387 parishes had already transferred allegiance to the OCU.
Onufriy has consistently spoken out against the war, and last month he deposed three top bishops, two of whom fled to Russia. And following the raids he declared support to UOC chaplains in the Ukrainian army, while the Holy Synod—speaking from the Lavra—reiterated that the church “consistently stands for the preservation of the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
After the draft law’s disclosure this month, Ukraine dismissed Elena Bogdan, state official for ethnopolitics and freedom of conscience, reportedly for her opposition to banning the UOC. She had previously confirmed Onufriy’s statement that the church was no longer governed by the ROC.
Zelensky’s decree tasked her office with the determination of UOC’s continuing ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. “Increasingly as the war grinds on and winter advances, the weaponization of religion will continue,” said Catherine Wanner, professor of history, anthropology, and religious studies at Penn State University. “All of these dynamics conspire to clamp down on…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 21, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Thanks to Russia, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians may now partake in a Christmas feast on December 25.
The joyous, 12-dish celebration has been their timeless practice—on January 7, according to Eastern tradition. But this year, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has permitted its clergy to conduct religious services on the same date as Western tradition, granting a one-day exemption to the 40-day Nativity Fast.
Beginning after the feast day of St. Philip, observed by Ukrainian Orthodox on November 28, the faithful abstain from alcohol and most meat products until the first star appears on Christmas Eve, January 6. But with millions of refugees in Europe witnessing the revelry of fellow Christians in the West, the OCU decided to permit Ukrainians everywhere to decide parish by parish which date they would honor.
Liturgical reform has long been on the agenda, but war was the spark.
“For most bishops of the church, the calendar is not a dogmatic issue of faith,” said Archbishop Fedir, head of the youth department of the OCU. “Especially after the full-scale aggression of Russia, there is a desire to become part of the Western family of churches.”
Ukraine had already established December 25 as an additional official Christmas holiday in 2017, joining Belarus, Eritrea, Lebanon, and Moldova as nations that formally celebrate the birth of Christ twice.
But altering the calendar disrupts the entire church cycle. Saints’ days, sermons, and gospel readings are all impacted, with scholars engaged in response. The Holy Synod decision tasks priests with gauging the sentiment of parishioners and bishops with conducting follow-up research. Many believers love their traditions, Fedir said, and the hierarchy is wise to proceed cautiously.
The archbishop is responsible for the diocese of Poltava, 220 miles southeast of Kyiv, where one newly established congregation of young people has decided to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar altogether, with his blessing. With blanket permission granted, he does not yet have a tally of how many parishes will join them—nor does the OCU’s Holy Synod.
But within her circle of Ukrainian friends, Nadiyka Gerbish finds none opposed.
“I expected it to happen, and wanted it to happen long ago,” said the author of A Ukrainian Christmas, updated and rereleased last month. “They want a solid line between them and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).” Gerbish, a member of Hosanna Evangelical Church in Zbarazh, a small town 250 miles west of Kyiv, condemned the support ROC patriarch Kirill has given to the invasion. And religiously, she sees the decision as part of a long-standing battle over…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
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.
The American government has long committed itself to supporting religious freedom worldwide.
In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act obliged the State Department to compile an annual report and designate offending nations as Countries of Particular Concern. It established an ambassador-at-large, created an independent bipartisan commission, and placed a special advisor on the National Security Council.
What about the British? Three years ago, the UK government asked itself the same question.
The answer was delivered by Philip Mounstephen, the Anglican bishop of Truro, within the province of Canterbury. The UK’s foreign secretary tasked him specifically to study persecution of Christians, and the 22 recommendations of the Truro Report were accepted in full by the government.
That does not mean they were all implemented.
This past summer, an independent review found good progress, with five points suffering “constraints” and only three with “no substantial action.” As it was released, London hosted the third in-person ministerial which gathered governments and civil society around the cause, following two ministerials hosted in Washington and an online-only one hosted by Poland amid the pandemic. (The UK event used the European nomenclature of “freedom of religion or belief” (FORB) instead of the Americans’ “international religious freedom” (IRF).)
Last month, Mounstephen visited Lebanon to deliver a lecture entitled “Why Our Religious Freedom Matters.” Hosted by the Middle East Council of Churches, the Bible Society, and Saint Joseph University, he presented an outline of Truro Report findings, broadened to include the persecuted of all religious traditions.
CT spoke with the bishop about his government’s commitment to the cause, whether Americans help or hurt, and how to overcome the younger generation’s rejection of Christian advocacy as an expression of white privilege and neo-colonialism:
CT: Our readers know that within the Anglican church there is a spectrum of evangelical and mainline faith, to use the American terms. How do you fit in?
Mounstephen: One of my roles is to be a pastor to the whole of the diocese. I can’t pick and choose and have favorites. But in British terms, I would be defined as an “open evangelical.” I believe in the authority of Scripture, in the finished and all-sufficient work of Christ on the cross, and the glorious grace of God that brings life to the dead.
And you have lived it out in your institutional service.
I was chief executive of Church Mission Society, which was an amazing opportunity to go to some of the most out-of-the-way parts of the world and see the people of God ministering with such love and care and commitment to people often very much on the margins. That was such a huge privilege.
You are a bishop, but you also have a role in global advocacy.
Yes. And I had no expectation when I took it on that it would be so. Before I officially started, I was called by the bishop of Canterbury who asked if I would undertake this work at the request of the then-foreign secretary to review how the UK Foreign Office responded—or not—to the question of the persecution of Christians.
Our team had a strong sense of the wind of the Holy Spirit leading us on. And to my great surprise, the government accepted the recommendations in full, repeatedly affirming it in documents since. It is often referred to in the House of Commons and Lords, holding the government to account for implementation.
I feel this is something God has laid on my heart to do, absolutely convinced that it is one of the major big-ticket items in the world that we must address—for the good of all humanity.
How does your advocacy continue since the publishing of the report?
I thought I would do it for six months, set it aside, and the report would gather dust on some government shelf. But I was very aware that there was no forum for civil society organizations to meet, of which there are many in the UK. So we set up the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum, which I chaired for its first year of operation. It now gathers about 90 different groups, modeled on the International Religious Freedom Roundtable that has been meeting in the US for a long time.
The UK hosted the Ministerial Summit on FORB this summer, and I was involved in that. Today I am here in Lebanon because I want to continue to advocate internationally, and I am due to go to Greece to meet with members of the foreign ministry and the Orthodox church.
Because I am the bishop of Truro, and the report is known as “the Truro report,” it has a currency that is associated with me. So this is a responsibility, and I want to push forward and advocate as best I can.
And because we have this strange system in the UK, in which the 26 most senior Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords, I will probably take my seat in a year or so, depending on turnover. This will also be a continuing platform for advocacy.
Without making your parishioners jealous, how much time can you give to the issue?
[Laughed] I have to say, people have been very supportive and encouraging. Part of my agenda for the diocese is that I want us to have more of an international perspective. Cornwall is in the far southwest of the British Isles, and it can be quite isolated, including in mentality. Helping the church in Cornwall look outwards with a generous heart to the rest of the world is intrinsic to my calling as Bishop of Truro as well.
Your report mentions the lack of interest Western politicians give to the issue. How has society changed in the three years since?
There is a formula: The bigger the country, the less internationally aware it is. By this standard the most globally aware nation would be Luxembourg. The kind of domestic political issues we have faced in the UK since the European Union referendum has tended to turn the country inwards, and I would say in an unhealthy manner.
There has been a real struggle for the UK to think about what its post-imperial role is in the world. There has been a sense that because we interfered uninvited in the past, we shouldn’t do so again now. That is understandable, but it sounds like washing your hands of responsibility—not in the least because some of the problems the world faces are still the legacy of colonial involvement.
The West has economic power that it can use for good or ill. Isolation is not a good look for any country, and international responsibility lies on the shoulders of every state.
In the younger generation, attuned to this sentiment, how do you promote FORB? I think this is a problem, and particularly in the European context this understanding of Christianity as an expression of white privilege is quite prevalent. But Christian faith these days is a phenomenon of…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on November 12, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
A new language law in Ukraine has complicated ministry to Russian-speaking citizens. Comparing restrictions to the Soviet era, one Christian broadcaster is relocating to Budapest, Hungary.
“I don’t want our staff busted on the air for reading the Bible in Russian,” said Dan Johnson, president of Christian Radio for Russia, which operates New Life Radio (NLR) from Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. “We were expecting bombs to wreck our radio operations, but it turned out to be this law.”
Last month, Russian missiles landed one mile from their studio.
But earlier in July, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed into law a near-complete ban on Russian music on radio and television. Passed by parliament with a two-thirds majority, it exempts pre-independence classical artists like Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as well as modern composers who have condemned the war.
About 65 percent of NLR airtime is music. Though local Christian anthems have inspired many during the war, Johnson said most contemporary worship songs are in Russian, even those originating from Ukraine.
A 2021 national survey identified 22 percent of the Ukrainian population as native Russian speakers, with 36 percent speaking the language primarily at home. Concentrated in the eastern Donbas and southern regions where Russian troops have prioritized attack, there are fears that Moscow is preparing to annex certain occupied areas.
Johnson has fled restrictions before. He moved to Russia in 1991 and by 1996 began radio ministry in Magadan, a featured city in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Kicked out in 2006, he continued ongoing satellite-based radio work in Moscow, broadcasting throughout the former Soviet Union. But as the campaign against both free press and evangelical ministry tightened, in 2019 he relocated again.
Odessa promised an atmosphere of freedom—until now.
“There isn’t a government in the world that can stop the gospel,” Johnson said. “We will pivot and move on as always.”
NLR rents its studios and broadcasts by satellite and online, simplifying operations. Budapest was chosen because of its sizable Russian Christian population, Johnson said, which welcomed the ministry.
In the meanwhile, NLR continues to produce content in Russian, encrypting the signal to broadcast from outside the country. This should satisfy the law, he said, while also raising funds to build a Ukrainian language–only network in Odessa. In time, as a to-be Ukrainian broadcaster, he hopes to secure an FM license, alongside satellite and internet radio.
“I hope the authorities will leave us alone,” he said.
Sergey Rakhuba of Mission Eurasia called NLR collateral damage.
“I believe in freedom of speech,” he said, “but this is a state of war.” A native Russian speaker himself, an aspect of Rakhuba’s ministry has witnessed increased scrutiny…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 30, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) called for prayer.
“On this day of independence, we want to declare our dependence on God,” it stated on behalf of Ukraine, “the One who can bring true peace to the hearts of each individual person, each family, and even entire peoples.”
Joined by the affiliated European Evangelical Alliance, the WEA petition specified prayers to end the suffering, to spare the world from further repercussions, to strengthen the church’s response, and to marshal peace not through weapons, but through prayer.
Ukraine must defend itself, the WEA clarified; but Christians have a deeper hope.
“Throughout history, God has changed hopeless and dire situations in surprising ways,” stated the petition. “Let us also pray for healing and for reconciliation, and that Russia and Ukraine could live in peace as independent, sovereign nations.”
An accompanying guide for parents offers similar prayers for children.
It will not be easy. An Orthodox priest who performed last rites for the 116 people found in a mass grave in Bucha reflected on his spiritual calling.
“Saying the word forgive isn’t difficult,” Father Andriy told The Associated Press. “But to say it from your heart—for now, that’s not possible.”
As a followup to its March survey of the wartime prayers of Ukraine’s evangelicals, Christianity Today asked a sampling of Christian leaders to explain how the ongoing war has changed how they pray and what they pray for, how they understand unanswered prayers in difficult times, and how fellow Christians around the world can best pray for them now:
Denys Kondyuk, head of the missiology department at Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary, Kyiv:
My prayers were more scheduled and structured before the invasion. Now they are dominated by requests for health and life, for obvious reasons. And I have seen God answer through many stories of deliverance from very dangerous situations; but of course, there are still many that suffer and die.
The prayer for the war to end is still unanswered.
Ukrainians have focused on verses that emphasize God’s justice, especially those which emphasize there is not much we can expect from people. Others, meanwhile, have found hope in the scriptures that promise our suffering is temporal, awaiting the kingdom of God.
Please pray that God guides us to serve where it is needed, and to be bold in what we do. And ultimately, for the victory of Ukraine—bringing justice to those who suffered and died.
Yuriy Kulakevych, foreign affairs director of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, Kyiv: We are all called to grow in Christ, which includes our prayer life. As pastor of God’s Peace Pentecostal Church in Kyiv, I am encouraging our people to…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Her mother died of cancer. Her father was killed in the war. When her home in Donetsk was destroyed by a Russian missile, retreating Ukrainian troops brought the eight-year-old orphan and her grandparents and uncle to volunteers serving with the Chernivtsi Bible Seminary (CBS), 680 miles to the west.
Their only possessions were the clothes on their backs.
Resettled in temporary housing, last month the uncle was called back to the front lines. The girl has been sent to a Christian camp, and the seminary—serving as a ministry hub for the internally displaced—is doing what it can to assist.
“We did not think that serving a refugee is such a complicated process,” said Vasiliy Malyk, CBS president. “But no matter how difficult it may be, we can help them at least with some dignity.”
It is a team effort, and once tallied the numbers both stagger and pale in comparison to the need.
The Alliance for Ukraine Without Orphans (AUWO) has mobilized 3,000 volunteers to provide temporary housing for 6,000 people, mostly women and children. It has evacuated 38,000—more than two-thirds of which have been orphans. Nearly 59,000 people have received some sort of humanitarian aid.
“When the war started, everyone was focused on responding,” said Ruslan Maliuta, a former AUWO president and current network liaison for One Hope. “But then we realized the war is going to last, the crisis is huge, and the response will require us all to work together.”
To do so, in April the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) launched The Response—Ukraine Special Taskforce (TRUST), with Maliuta as its leader. AUWO united with Ukraine’s Baptists, Pentecostals, and seven other national church and parachurch organizations to coordinate refugee relief efforts, alongside ten regional partners from Poland, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.
“Having churches reach across denominational lines to work together has been one of the most encouraging things,” said Chris Guess, a Romanian pastor. “We have volunteers from across the globe, [as] God’s people have jumped in with us.” For example, volunteers from Argentina shipped 20,000 tons of rice.
Comparing notes from March onward, the evangelical network has mobilized 64,000 volunteers. Temporary housing has been offered to 271,000. Over 346,000 people have been evacuated, while nearly 600,000 have received humanitarian aid. Over $1.1 million has been distributed to partners.
“TRUST is coming alongside the admirable work of professional aid agencies with no intention of competing or creating a new relief organization,” said Thomas Schirrmacher, WEA secretary general. “TRUST offers a bridge that connects.”
Yet the United Nations underscores the grim reality: 6.2 million need shelter, 10.2 million need food, and 12.1 million need health assistance.
“People are on the edge of exhaustion,” said Rafal Piekarski, serving with Proem Ministries in Poland. “Our Polish resources are over. We don’t want to compete with each other, but be good stewards of what you can bring from your countries, your churches.” In May, Piekarski was one of…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 5, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
The epicenter of advocacy for international religious freedom (IRF) has crossed the pond. Last week, the United Kingdom hosted the first in-person government ministerial on the issue to be held outside the United States.
Under the Trump administration, the US State Department inaugurated the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018. Reconvened in Washington in 2019, the following year the event moved to Poland which was forced to conduct proceedings online due to COVID-19. Pandemic distractions prevented Brazil from hosting the ministerial in 2021, but civil society and religious groups rallied to organize an IRF Summit in DC instead.
In 2020, 27 nations seized the ministerials’ momentum to create the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), centered around Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Declaring that “everyone has freedom to believe or not believe, to change faith, to meet alone for prayer or corporately for worship,” IRFBA has since grown to include 36 countries, an additional five national “friends,” and two observers—including the UN-designated special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), the preferred terminology for IRF in Europe.
As IRFBA chair, the UK hosted the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief on July 5–6 in London.
“Millions of people are being deprived an education or a job or a home or access to justice or liberty, even to life itself,” said Fiona Bruce, the UK prime minister’s special envoy for FoRB, “simply on account of what they believe.”
The UK demonstrated leadership on the issue in 2020, when as chair of the Group of Seven—a political forum of the world’s leading democratic economies—Britain secured the first-ever mention of FoRB as a priority within the G7 official communique.
“The ministerial helped create a heightened global consciousness on FoRB, a cornerstone of all human rights,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, ambassador for religious freedom for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “Where FoRB is violated, all other human rights suffer.”
Hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Center in Parliament Square, the 2022 ministerial’s remarks were delivered by Prince Charles of Wales and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spoke on behalf of Britain’s Jews.
Regional foreign minister Tarik Ahmed, a Muslim, delivered a statement welcoming to the ministerial 500 delegates from more than 100 countries. Sources told CT the UK did an exceptional job integrating the dozens of civil society and religious groups into the official proceedings.
With better coordination—and a wider berth from Americans’ July 4 observance of Independence Day—attendance might have been even larger. Only a few days before the UK ministerial…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 13, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Founding fathers are often sacred, but not sacrosanct.
In recent years, Americans have wrestled with the slave-owning legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Confederate statues have been toppled, ideologically refighting for some the Civil War. Pilgrims have become pillagers; Plymouth Rock equated with imperialism.
Muslims are having a similar moment.
Their prophet is called a pedophile. Their miracles, a myth. Successors to Muhammad are compared to ISIS. And it is not just Islam’s historic men. Two current global controversies concern two of the faith’s celebrated founding females: Aisha and Fatimah.
The International Union for Muslim Scholars has renewed its call for an international ban on insulting religions. And from India to England, Muslims have poured into the streets this month in protest.
Christians—whether leading such polemics or suffering under blasphemy accusations—have often been embroiled in such Muslim controversies. These latest episodes, many are relieved, are centered elsewhere.
“But Christians in both India and Pakistan are quite frightened,” said Juliet Chowdhry, a trustee for the British Asian Christian Association. “It is inevitable that as a vulnerable religious minority that is incorrectly perceived to be in league with the West, Christians will find themselves caught up in the anger.”
Thus they are keeping silent, said a Christian leader in Pakistan who—illustrating the point—requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Last month [May 26], a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India cited Aisha, often considered the favorite wife of Muhammad. Appearing on a talk show with Muslims, the Hindu official responded passionately when chided about a disputed temple.
Her prime minister, Narendra Modi, has led India in the direction of Hindu nationalism, stoking tensions with its 15 percent Muslim community. Though always a minority religion there, Islam ruled the subcontinent for centuries, with some ancient temples turned into mosques.
In one location, shivling idols were allegedly discovered last month. The Muslim talk show guests said no, their shape—holy to Hindus in honor of Shiva—resembled instead a fountain. The panel then descended into a heated discussion over the mocking of gods and goddesses.
“Should I start mocking claims of flying horses … and having sex with [Aisha] when she turned nine?” exclaimed the official. “Should I start saying all these things that are mentioned in your scriptures?”
Buraq is the name of the winged animal mentioned in Islamic tradition as carrying Muhammad on a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. Similar traditions quote Aisha on her tender age at the time her marriage was consummated, while some more contemporary scholars cite evidence to argue she was in her teens.
At least 15 majority-Muslim nations—led by those in the Arabian Gulf—have condemned India, which in turn censured both the BJP spokesperson and another offending official. The grand mufti of Oman called the comments a “war on all Muslims,” while Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque described them as “real terrorism.”
Muhammad was 53 when he married Aisha, and Islamic sources indicate a happy existence together. Aisha grew up to become a scholar and a military leader, often honored by modern day Muslims as an example of feminist egalitarianism.
But she is also a center of controversy—resurrected in a recent British film.
After the death of Muhammad, a faction of Muslims believed leadership should remain in the bloodline of the prophet. Known as Shiites, this sect believes the caliphate was promised to Ali, the prophet’s nephew and husband to his daughter, Fatimah. About 10–15 percent of Muslims are Shiites, with the great majority residing in Iran, Iraq, India, and Pakistan.
Sunnis, the majority sect, believe Muhammad did not designate a successor. The community then met to elect one, a caliph, and the first three were chosen from among Muhammad’s closest companions. Ali became the fourth caliph, but in a clash known as the Battle of the Camel, Aisha rode the Arabian dromedary in a rebellion against him.
The Lady of Heaven builds its story around Fatimah, who Muslims esteem as akin to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In a poignant introductory scene, Fatimah is introduced as the first victim of terrorism, paralleled as an elderly woman comforts an Iraqi child whose mother was killed by ISIS. Winning awards for visual effects, the $15 million partisan film relates a Shiite perspective that the famed daughter of Muhammad died in childbirth—due to injuries suffered earlier in a raid ordered by his first successor.
Sunni orthodoxy honors the first four caliphs as “righteous.” Thereafter the community descended into civil war, with Ali and Fatimah’s children on the losing end. Hussain, the younger of two sons, was killed in battle, and his commemoration by Shiites is often accompanied by mourning and ritual self-flagellation.
Though Shiite-dominated, Iran banned the film as divisive to the Muslim community, while Pakistan, Egypt’s al-Azhar, and the Muslim Council of Britain all condemned it also. Following large-scale Sunni protests, most UK cinemas canceled upcoming screenings. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film’s approval rating…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
After 93 days of war, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has definitively broken with Russia—maybe.
In a council decision taken May 27, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)–affiliated body declared its “full self-sufficiency and independence,” condemning the three-month conflict as “a violation of God’s commandment: Thou shalt not kill!”
Such a condemnation was not new. The day the invasion began, UOC-MP Metropolitan Onufriy called it a “repetition of the sin of Cain.” But in dry ecclesial language, the statement dropped a bombshell.
It “adopted relevant amendments” and “considered … making Chrism.”
Chrism, the anointing oil of baptism and other liturgical rites, was last made in Ukraine in 1913. Its manufacture is a typical sign of autocephaly, the self-governing of an Orthodox church branch.
Continuing the tone, the UOC-MP reiterated its position.
“We express our disagreement with … Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia,” it stated of the ROC head, “regarding the war in Ukraine.”
Kirill has consistently supported Russia’s “special military operation.”
In 2018, the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Rejected by Kirill and the UOC-MP, the act formalized the national schism. (A much smaller third Ukrainian Orthodox church joined the OCU.)
The UOC-MP council’s Friday statement continued to echo the ROC rejection. OCU bishops lack apostolic succession, it said, while overseeing the forcible seizure of churches to transfer jurisdiction. The UOC-MP stated a willingness to dialogue with the OCU if these dividing issues could be addressed.
And then, it symbolized division.
The next day during Holy Liturgy, Onufriy referred to Kirill as a fellow primate, not as his hierarch (superior). No mention was made of any connection to the ROC Moscow Patriarchate.
Andrey Shirin said these “unheard of” developments were “truly remarkable.”
“The ongoing war in Ukraine is a crisis on several levels—political, economic, humanitarian,” said the Russian associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center, a Baptist seminary in Virginia. “This is another chapter in the theological crisis.” The consequences could…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on March 30, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
In a solemn ceremony last month at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) laid a wreath of remembrance.
It was also a pledge.
“In awe and profound shame,” the alliance wrote on its Yad Vashem laurel, “yet with the promise for future solidarity.”
Alongside dialogue partners from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the EEA warned that antisemitism is rising around the world. Taking a concrete step April 26 in opposition, it announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of the issue.
With 37 member nations—including the United States, Germany, and Poland—the IHRA has been building a coalition around the following description:
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
The EEA was joined in Jerusalem by Thomas Schirrmacher, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), as well as Goodwill Shana, chairman of its international council. Though the two leaders also laid a wreath, the global organization did not sign onto the IHRA definition like its European affiliate.
The vast majority of evangelicals share the goal of combating antisemitism. But not all agree with IHRA’s usage.
“Though its specified aim is to provide a guide to help identify antisemitic statements or actions,” said Salim Munayer, regional coordinator of the WEA’s Peace and Reconciliation Network for the Middle East and North Africa, “it has been deployed to stifle discussions about whether the State of Israel should be defined in ethno-religious terms, and to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of Palestinians.”
The definition was first published in 2005 in order to evaluate and measure the growth of antisemitism in Europe. It was adopted officially by the IHRA in 2016. At issue is not its wording, but the 11 given examples that illustrate offense.
Some are clearly uncontroversial, such as calling for the killing of Jews, denying the scope of the Holocaust, or perpetuating conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination.
But of the 11, seven concern the State of Israel. Some of these examples of antisemitism are…
This article was first published at Christianity Today on May 16, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Ministry had been going so well in Irpin, Ukraine.
Over the past decade, the population of Kyiv’s northwest suburb swelled to 90,000, and Irpin Bible Church (IBC) grew with it. The Baptist congregation grew to include 700 adults, with an additional 300 children. And in 2019, 12 members launched a church plant in the “New Blocs” neighborhood, where 15,000 Ukrainians lived in multi-story apartment complexes with no church of any kind.
Meeting previously in a basement office, last December the church planters purchased a stand-alone building from a local bank, grateful to have their own location amid a shortage of rental space. With a ground-floor capacity of 200 people, the congregation’s 60 members anticipated additional growth.
Three months later, the Russians invaded.
Hostomel was the first suburb to fall, being home to the regional airport. The assault on Irpin and neighboring Bucha began February 27, attempting to encircle Kyiv.
IBC senior pastor Mykola Romanuk was in the US at the time, while his family relocated to western Ukraine. He returned on March 5, only to leave later that day when tanks first breached the suburb. The next day, a member of his congregation who had returned to Irpin to assist with evacuations was killed alongside a mother and her two young children—a tragedy witnessed and shared worldwide by The New York Times—as Russian forces shelled the humanitarian corridor.
By March 14, Russia occupied half the suburb, including the church plant’s quarter. IBC’s sanctuary remained secure, but 200 of its members fled to 20 nations across Europe, while another 500 scattered across western Ukraine. Romanuk was in Rivne, 200 miles west of Kyiv, with about 70 of his congregants. Services resumed online while the stalwart faithful tried to serve 4,000 mostly elderly residents left behind in Irpin.
On March 16, Ukraine announced a counterattack. The army recaptured the suburb on March 28. But fighting continued in Bucha for another two days, during which time Russia increased its seemingly random barrage of missiles into Irpin. One hit the church plant, destroying its roof and the second floor Sunday school classrooms.
There were no military personnel in the area.
“Any building can be rebuilt,” said Romanuk. “Compared to the destruction of the city and the many who died, it is no big deal.”
While some Ukrainian Protestants see church buildings as holy, he added, the majority Orthodox Christians view sanctuaries as a sacred space to connect with God, imbued with divine aura. No food is allowed inside; certainly not a bathroom toilet.
This has impacted relief efforts. Of the eight Orthodox churches in Irpin, only two had service annexes. Though only one was damaged—and its priest killed in an airstrike—it was only the annexes that opened to shelter their neighborhood members, he said. One Orthodox priest tried to help more broadly.
“In our theology, the church is a place for service and worship,” said Romanuk. “Now it has become a home for the homeless, catering to the needs of all.” Leading IBC since 2009, he returned with his wife and daughter on April 3, living in the church basement with…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 13, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Russian sermons—to the extent legally possible—reflect the national mood.
“Honor the tsar!” preached Alexey Novikov of Land of Freedom Pentecostal church in Moscow two days after the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, quoting from 1 Peter 2:17. While not pro-war, it was certainly pro-Russia. Once a lawfully elected president commits troops, he said, it is a Christian’s duty to support them.
One month later, Mikhail Belyaev of Source of Living Water Baptist church in Voronezh, Russia, asked, “Why are the churches silent?”
Many Ukrainian evangelicals are fuming at their cross-border colleagues for failing to speak out against the war. They also cite the apostle Peter, placing priority on the same verse’s earlier command: “Love the family of believers.”
But Belyaev’s sermon was not pro-Ukraine. His congregation 320 miles south of Moscow provides a different answer.
The churches are not silent, he said. They are preaching the gospel and praying for peace.
“Russians take the Ukrainian complaint seriously,” said Andrey Shirin, associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, a Baptist seminary in Virginia. “But they put God before the nation—and think many Ukrainians put too much stock in their nationality.”
Shirin left Russia 30 years ago and said that, then as now, most believers are wary of politics. And while some pastors have criticized the war, a pro-Ukraine sermon would be hard to find.
Throughout the war, polls have shown strong support for what Russia has legally mandated be called a “special military operation.” Between 65 percent and 89 percent have signaled approval; 71 percent said they feel “pride” and “joy.”
Some analysts have suggested propaganda is at play: Three in 4 Russians rely on television for the news, and 2 in 3 from state-run broadcasts. Only 5 percent have access to a VPN for outside reporting.
Others have suggested falsification: A “list experiment” in which Russians did not have to answer the war question directly resulted in an approval rating of 53 percent.
Specific polls do not exist for evangelicals. Shirin, noting the difficulty of precision, estimated pro-Russia sentiment like Novikov’s would register only 20 percent. But pro-Ukraine sentiment and a clear antiwar position would fare…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 22, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Now locked in a vicious war of survival with invading Russian forces, many are on the front lines of battle. Leading voices call for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone. Pastors pray for soldiers; churches offer bread.
It is not as straightforward as simple self-defense. But neither was their nonviolence, practiced by most Slavic evangelicals, a clear convictional principle. Forged in the fires of the Soviet Union, the then-second-largest Baptist community in the world developed along a very different path from their denominational brethren in the United States.
Just ask Roman Rakhuba, who was raised Baptist.
“I never would have called myself a Mennonite,” said the head of the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine (AMBCU). “Later I discovered I was following their principles all along.”
Known as the “Bible Belt” of Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s evangelical faith was greatly influenced by the Anabaptist tradition. Rakhuba grew up in Zaporizhzhia, 350 miles southeast of Kyiv, near the old oak tree associated with the Chortitza colony of Mennonites, founded in 1789.
His grandfather was saved through one of their preachers.
But as a Baptist child, Rakhuba was raised without toy guns, instructed to never return evil with evil. Forbidden from playing war, his relatives refused to fight in the Soviet army. He remembers Mennonites hosted at his grandfather’s home, learning of the 1763 decree by Catherine the Great to invite German settlers to develop the Russian hinterland.
They were joined by Lutherans and Catholics, dissidents and rebels, offered lands, self-governance, and—vital for the pacifists—exemption from military service. Over the next century, Mennonite communities thrived in Ukraine, developing infrastructure for agriculture and industry. But increasing prosperity challenged their social and spiritual life, and drunkenness and dancing became common.
Then came pietism.
In the mid-19th century, German missionaries, such as the Lutheran Edward Wuest, found a reception with the Mennonites. Their emphasis on a regenerated Christian life through personal conversion, prayer, and Bible study appealed to colonists dissatisfied with the traditional church. The community ruptured, and in 1860 a parallel Mennonite Brethren denomination was born, sending missionaries as far as Siberia and India.
The still-German speakers lived largely separate lives from their Slavic neighbors, until two events intervened to spark an evangelical revival. In 1858, Emperor Alexander II authorized the translation and printing of the Bible in Russian. Three years later, he abolished serfdom.
“For the first time, peasants were no longer tied to the land,” said Mary Raber, a church history instructor at Odessa Theological Seminary. “Where better to find a job than on the farm of a successful colony?”
Slavs, now with a New Testament to read, started joining their Bible studies.
Mennonites were not the only revivalist movement in the Russian empire. German Baptists planted churches in the Caucasus Mountains. An English missionary won converts among the St. Petersburg elite. Neither of these groups adopted pacifism as a rule, and even some Mennonites organized self-defense units to ward off bandits in the chaos of World War I. But none were prepared for…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Twenty of the top 22 Christian pages on Facebook in 2021 were run from Europe’s southeast corner.
Nikola Galevski’s wasn’t one of them.
The pastor of Soulcraft Evangelical Church in Skopje, North Macedonia, actually prefers Twitter, which in the Balkans mostly attracts leftist and antireligious voices. He uses the handle “Protestant Imam,” which is a tongue-in-cheek gesture of openness to the Muslim population that makes up about a third of his country.
“The community teases me, and I tease them,” Galevski said, “but it helps develop their life with Christ.”
He has around 5,000 followers on Twitter, and some of his videos on YouTube went viral when his wife, Anet, was dying of cancer. Galevski shared about the struggle of her death in his weekly sermons, which were posted online. Orthodox Christians, nonbelievers, and Muslims joined him in his mourning, and when Anet died, views jumped into the tens of thousands.
But that pales in comparison to the top Christian Facebook page, “Be Happy Enjoy Life,” which reached 75 million users every month, according to an internal Facebook document obtained by MIT Technology Review. Ninety-five percent of viewers did not sign up to follow that page but instead had its content pushed into their news feeds by Facebook’s algorithms.
That page is one of 15,000 in the Balkans that is believed to be a “troll farm,” pumping out disinformation and figuring out new and better ways to command eyeballs—many of them belonging to Christians scrolling in America.
An internal Facebook document written by a senior-level data scientist said, “Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church.”
They’re certainly not evangelicals. Galevski, who is also the coordinator of the Evangelical Protestant Initiative, would probably know them if they were. There are about…
This article was originally published in the April print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.
The atrocities are shocking. Ukrainian authorities have said 410 civilians were killed in the suburbs of Kyiv, discovered after the Russian army withdrew from its positions. At least two were found with their hands bound; several were shot in the head.
Many bodies were burned.
One resident said the occupiers were polite, and shared their meal rations. But others told of ransacked apartments; one was tied to a pole and beaten. Soldiers even shot a cyclist, who had dismounted and turned a corner on foot.
It could have been Ivan Rusyn.
President of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS), he had been coordinating aid from a safe house in Kyiv. But riding his bicycle into Russian-controlled Bucha to deliver medicine to a neighbor, he became an eyewitness to the atrocities.
Russia has called the images fake; satellite evidence contradicts. Christianity Today interviewed Rusyn to hear his firsthand report. He spoke about the spiritual impact, becoming a more authentic church, and how evangelicals have been helping the reclaimed suburbs—where he lived the past eight years:
Tell me about your neighborhood.
If you look at Bucha on Google Maps, I live in one of the five apartment blocs opposite Toscana Grill. It is an expensive restaurant, but sometimes I have eaten there. I run in the municipal park nearly every day, and with friends on Saturday. The seminary in Kyiv is six miles away, and it would take me 25 minutes to drive there, with traffic.
I noticed Google now says it will take an hour and a half.
The bridge was destroyed on the second day of the war. Russian helicopters and soldiers landed first at the Hostomel airport, three miles from our home. There was heavy combat, and I took shelter in my basement for the next five days. Then I left to the seminary, following that Google Maps route to skirt around Kyiv to the northeast. After two days we evacuated, and I found my way to a safe house in the city.
Now when we bring food and provisions into Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, we see many destroyed Russian tanks. The bridge is still out, but we can navigate it carefully with minibuses. It is dangerous, but if you go slow the journey now takes about one hour.
When did you return? Four days ago (April 3). We were escorted by police because…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on April 7, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Craig Simonian had a vision. It landed him in a war zone.
Raised in an Armenian-American Orthodox family, he came to know Jesus personally at university. He served as a Vineyard church pastor in New Jersey for nearly two decades but continued to embrace his Apostolic church heritage.
It laid the foundation of his faith—but also of his nation of origin.
“The reason Armenia still exists is because of the church,” he said. “It kept our shattered people together, especially in the diaspora.”
As a child, Simonian’s grandmother witnessed her father and mother murdered in the Armenian Genocide, killed by Turks in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
When she eventually arrived in America, it was the Apostolic church that embraced their family. Simonian recalled kindly visits by priests of their Oriental Orthodox tradition who—in the face of tragedy and devastation—gave him a deep appreciation of the sovereignty of God.
It was his evangelical awakening, however, that drew him back to Armenia—and in particular to its church. He relocated in 2018 to a nation locked in a cold war with neighboring Azerbaijan. A self-professed “oddball,” he longed for the Apostolic church to embrace fully the gospel he had discovered.
“If we are going to reach this generation, we can’t do it without them,” Simonian said. “I will call people to Jesus but never to leave their church.”
But two years later, the war turned hot.
Azerbaijan invaded the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020. The territory is recognized internationally as belonging to Azerbaijan, yet the residents of what Armenians call Artsakh voted for independence in 1991. For three decades Armenia held the upper hand but was routed in a 44-day war through superior drone technology that Turkey and Israel supplied to Azerbaijan.
Russian intervention enforced a ceasefire, with Nagorno-Karabakh demolished and Armenians holding a fraction of their previous territory. The nation felt numb after its defeat, and many found refuge in the Apostolic church.
Today, Simonian provides ad hoc spiritual care as he builds relationships with evangelicals and Orthodox alike.
His primary worship is through Yerevan International Church. But few in his personal circles have saluted his efforts to attend the Divine Liturgy and cultivate relationships with Orthodox clergy. Many evangelicals are soured by years of the older tradition labeling the newcomers a sect, or worse, a cult. But neither has Simonian yet found in the Apostolic church the fellowship that characterized his diaspora youth.
“The warm fuzzies I had growing up are completely void here,” he said. “The church is not so much a community.”
Simonian understands. Soviet communism purged the church, replacing clergy with compliant leadership. Following Armenia’s independence in 1991, this generation still exists but is giving way to a spiritual cadre that he says recognizes the church needs more than ancient traditions.
“We do not need to re-evangelize Armenia,” said Shahe Ananyan, dean of Gevorkian Theological Seminary in the Apostolic holy see of Etchmiadzin, 13 miles west of Yerevan. “Our main task is to wisely consider how to bring both Eastern and Western traditions together in synthesis.”
The church is still discussing application, he said. But he recognized that modern life for many has crowded out liturgical attendance and Bible reading. Forging forward anyway is…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
“I want to see 96 percent of Azerbaijanis confess their faith in Christ, and revival often began when the king became a believer,” he said. “But our God is the president of presidents, so the government does not rule over me.”
He has a long way to go.
Panahov, founder of the Vineyard church in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, arrives at his target by inverting his homeland’s estimated proportion of Christians: 4 percent. Most of these are Russian Orthodox, holdovers from when the Caucasus nation of 10 million was part of the Soviet Union.
But the Azerbaijan Bible Society estimates that 20,000 Azeris have become evangelicals, most within the past two decades. And the government—despite being panned for widespread human rights violations in politics—has earned local plaudits for its level of religious freedom, especially toward Christians and Jews.
Panahov’s own story supports his optimism. But is it wise? Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian leaders offer a word of caution.
From an Azeri Muslim family with a communist father, in 1989 Panahov came to faith at the age of 12 through a local Russian Baptist church. But as he grew interested in the arts and dancing, the conservative Christian community could not accept such worldly activity.
Panahov fell away from the faith as he performed professionally around the world—until in 2007 he tore his meniscus. Doctors in Turkey, where he lived at the time, told him he would never dance again.
It was then he recalled Jesus—whom he said spoke a word of healing to him. But through his Turkish pastor, God also gave him a commission: Return to Azerbaijan, and share what God has done for you.
Panahov was reluctant, knowing his artistic passion was a spiritual offense. But trusting God, he went back and eventually found a new church home. Over the next seven years he worshiped comfortably, started a family, and even found work as a dance instructor. But then he heard again the voice that healed him: Go out and start a house church.
He left his fellowship with tears but knew to obey. In the beginning he met mostly with believing relatives, but four years later their number grew to the 50 required by the authorities for registration. Similar miracles have marked many in the movement, which according to Panahov counts 350 believers in 16 cell groups, spread throughout his Caspian Sea country.
And God has used his artistic talent. His team has drawn hundreds to gospel-themed performances in downtown Baku, the nation’s capital. Media and filmmaking have put the message on the internet. The Vineyard church baptized 64 new Christians during the pandemic, he said, and 36 during Azerbaijan’s victorious war with neighboring Armenia.
“Two years ago, the churches did not believe opportunities for evangelism could reach such a level,” Panahov said. “But I know it is from God, because I don’t have the brains for it.”
It is also from the government, which following many years of suppression now works with church leaders to legalize their fellowships. While noting a positive trend, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom still recommends Azerbaijan for inclusion on the State Department’s Special Watch List for religious freedom violators.
Of concern is the legislation that requires 50 people before legal registration. Many evangelicals celebrate the freedom they do have—and the movement of the Holy Spirit to far surpass this number. But some notice…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.