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Estonia Seminary Unites War-Weary Russians and Ukrainians in Christ

Credit: Marina Kisseljova

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, few European institutions have welcomed both Slavic foes. A rare example is found right on the border, in a nation that wonders if it might be next.

Estonia, the northernmost of three small former Soviet republics on the Baltic Sea, immediately rallied in support of Ukraine. Given that Russia’s aggression began on February 24—coinciding with Estonia’s date of independence, first proclaimed in 1918—some wondered if it was a deliberate message.

The initial blitzkrieg toward Kyiv reminded Estonians of the Soviet occupation of the 1940s. Politicians donned blue and yellow ribbons; military brass sent weapons and aid. Citizens, including the 1 in 4 with Russian ethnicity, reacted to the atrocities in horror.

But as many universities closed their doors to students from Russia and allied Belarus, one evangelical institution bucked the trend. Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary (BMTS)—fully united with the national stance condemning the war—insisted instead on the unity of Christ.

“We did not hang a Ukrainian flag, but held a joint prayer of lament,” said Külli Tõniste, BMTS president. “Preservation of community is more important than an outward show of patriotism.”

Founded in 1994 and accredited by the state, the Methodist seminary hosts students from neighboring Latvia, nearby Finland, the United States, Israel, Nigeria, and Ghana. But it was the caldron of Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians—43 percent of the student body—that could have proved to be a tinderbox.

Yet sensing confusion and insecurity among many, Tõniste—an Asbury Theological Seminary alumna with a PhD from the London School of Theology—assured all students that her door was open to hear their stories. The Ukrainian refugee from Mariupol. The Estonian whose grandfather was killed by the Soviets. And the Russian of mixed family with Ukrainians who doesn’t know what to believe.

“Once admitted,” she said, “our students are safe with us.”

One example is Philip Kharchenko, a first-year student from Russian ally Belarus. A physical education teacher back home, he was “shocked” at the invasion—as initially all his colleagues were as well. But as his school and nation rallied behind Moscow, he felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Having long felt called to ministry, he found a home in Estonia.

“I thought they wouldn’t let me in,” he said. “But I am glad to be here, surrounded by people studying the Bible—it opens up a whole new experience of God.”

He has made quick friends with Russians and Ukrainians alike, comparing similar words in each of their languages. And at the annual Christmas celebration—which raised $1,600 for sister seminaries under fire—he watched in admiration as other Russian and Belarusian students included a Ukrainian-language song among their multi-language holiday medley.

Then all joined in an African-led dance.

“In the non-Christian world, I see great separation between peoples,” said Kharchenko. “But at seminary, our borders just dissolve.”

Two months later, it took administrative resolve to ensure this.

Simultaneous translation into Estonian, Russian, and English permits not only a diverse student body but also a diverse faculty. But as the one-year anniversary of the war approached, a visiting professor from Moscow—over Zoom—began to talk politics. Among his complaints was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 9, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.