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‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’: Ukrainian Orthodox Church Ruptures Relations with Russia

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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.

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Photos Show Ukraine’s Bible Belt Struck Down But Not Destroyed

Image: Joel Carillet
A Baptist church plant in Irpin, Ukraine, damaged during the Russian invasion

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.

Dozens were killed in Russian atrocities.

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.

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How Russian Christians View the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine

Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev / Getty

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.

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Parsing Pacifism: Ukraine’s Mennonite Heritage Shapes Evangelical Responses to Russia

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Ukrainian Baptists were once practical pacifists.

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.

What happened?

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.

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Bucha Evangelical Leader Sees Russian Atrocities, Looks for God’s Hand

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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.

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What Ukraine’s Evangelical Women Want Known About Russia’s War

Image: Edits by Christianity Today / Source Images: NurPhoto / Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Of Ukraine’s more than 4 million refugees, 90 percent are women and children. Of the 6.5 million internally displaced Ukrainians, 54 percent of adults are women. Men ages 18-60 are required to stay and resist the Russian invasion. And thus it is men who usually tell the public tales of war.

Women are often kept to private forums, such as their journals. Including:

32 days of war.

Fall asleep while checking the news on your phone.

See nightmares about concentration camps, bombing, dead people.

Wake up from a nightmare and remember it is not just a bad dream.

Check your phone with the thought: I hope everyone I love is alive.

Kiss a sleeping husband thinking about the fragility of life.

Wash your face. Put your clothes on.

Go to work. Wear a smile as a mask. Distance your emotions from pain. Physically hear pain turn into white noise in your head.

Check on your family during a 15-minute break at work. Cry on your break.

Six seconds: breathe in. Eight seconds: breathe out.

Feel grateful for being away from your phone eight hours a day at work. Feel helpless about being away from your phone eight hours a day at work.

So began the March 27 entry of Tetiana Dyatlik Dalrymple, suffering vicariously from afar in Washington, DC. Her father, Taras, sensed that such female perspectives have been missing from coverage of the war.

As regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia for Overseas Council, he recruited six Ukrainian women leaders who could tell their story. In partnership with the Eastern European Institute of Theology, ScholarLeaders International, and four affiliated seminaries, they sought to correct the critical observation of Svitlana Alexievich, a Belarussian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015.

“All that we know of war,” she said, “is told by men’s voices.”

Too few international supporters care to notice. The theological educators’ second webinar, The Russia-Ukraine War: Women Voices, drew only about 200 registrations yesterday, less than half of the first by male seminary leaders.

Marina Ashikhmina, vice rector for educational work at Tavriski Christian Institute, said the distinction is patently unfair. Women in war have a “double responsibility.” Underappreciated in society is…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Ukraine’s Evangelical Seminaries Plead for Help

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One month ago, Taras Dyatlik gathered in Moldova with friends and partners for another 10-day round of mundane seminary meetings. Serving as regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia for Overseas Council, he was a lynchpin for strategy and funding for a network of theological institutions in Ukraine and Russia.

Three days later, he was desperately scrambling back to Kyiv. Dyatlik’s family—like much of Ukraine—was under Russian military fire. And the only thing louder than the air raid sirens that would soon pervade his sleepless nights was the silence of his Russian colleagues.

“This is not a conflict, or tension, or special operation,” he said, using the terms employed by most Russians—and too many otherwise cautious supporters in the West. “It is invasion and war.”

He emphasized the Bible shows the importance of precision in languague.

“It’s not just that Abel died or that Jesus was just betrayed; Judah betrayed Jesus, Cain killed Abel,” he said. “Not just that a man sinned; Adam and Eve sinned. Biblical truth has names, has a cause-and-effect chain.”

Dyatlik’s charged remarks mirrored others voiced at an online roundtable organized Thursday by the Ukraine-based Eastern European Institute of Theology (EEIT). About 500 supporters, partners, and general wellwishers registered for The Russia-Ukraine War: Evangelical Voices, eager to hear from fellow believers on the front lines.

The attendees, from at least 25 nations and 20 US states, received theological reflection—and raw emotion.

“It’s difficult for us Ukrainians to stay calm when we talk about what is happening in Ukraine,” said Roman Soloviy, EEIT director, who served as moderator. “Most of us men have never cried so much as during the last three weeks. We really need your help, your prayer, and your voice in the world.”

Oleksandr Geychenko, rector of Odessa Theological Seminary (OTS), expressed the shock of all.

“We died with the pregnant woman and her child when the maternity hospital was bombed. We fled with those running from Russian shooting,” he said. “All we were used to is wiped out—now just a wilderness.”

OTS is the oldest of the Ukrainian evangelical seminaries, tracing its history to a 1989 local effort to train preachers and Sunday school teachers. The campus was evacuated at the start of the war as the Ukrainian military took up occupancy in defense of the Black Sea port. But what has puzzled and discouraged Geychenko most is…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on March 18, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Russian Evangelical Leader Apologizes to Ukrainian Christians

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In the highest-profile statement yet of its kind, the leader of the Russian Evangelical Alliance has announced his “bitterness and regret” over decisions taken by his government.

Will it be enough to rebuild bridges with fellow Ukrainian believers across the border?

“I mourn what my country has done in its recent military invasion of another sovereign country, Ukraine,” stated REA general secretary Vitaly Vlasenko in a March 12 open letter. “In the worst-case scenario, I could not imagine what is now being observed.”

His language is precise, but also careful.

On March 4, the Russian parliament amended its criminal code to impose prison terms for up to 15 years for spreading “fake news” that “discredits” the military.

Notably, Vlasenko did not use the Russian government’s designated label of “special military operation” to describe the violence in Ukraine. Utilizing “conflict” and “invasion” instead, he avoided describing it—though he did imply—with terms that have been officially banned, such as “war.” And alongside recognition of Ukraine’s fear of “occupation,” he cited Russia’s goal of “demilitarization.”

Two days earlier, a Russian court fined an Orthodox priest 35,000 rubles [$261] for discrediting the army during his Sunday sermon. His congregation helped pay the fine.

Russian media lawyers are debating whether the law prevents citizens from questioning the “special military operation” or calling for it to end.

Vlasenko’s statement [full text below] toes the line.

“Everything I could do to prevent war, I did,” Vlasenko lamented. “I apologize to all those who have suffered.” Chief among his efforts was…

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

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The Wartime Prayers of Ukraine’s Evangelicals

Image: Evgeniy Maloletka

The Ukrainian church needs support. But so do the individuals who shepherd the body of Christ. Too often they are lost behind the headlines, stories, and statistics of war. Even their quotes fail to convey the full depth of their struggle.

Christianity Today asked Ukrainian evangelical leaders to help readers enter their war-torn world by sharing a glimpse of it. Each provided a Bible verse that has proven meaningful for perseverance, prayer requests for both concrete personal needs and more profound spiritual longings, and links to how readers can get involved.

Taras Dyatlik, engagement director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia for ScholarLeaders International:

Currently supporting a network of Ukrainian seminaries, Dyatlik has identified three stages of need. The immediate need is to evacuate, relocate, and find safe locations to save the lives of students, staff, and faculty. In another week or so, their situation must become stabilized in longer-term accommodations. And then, pending the developments of war, they will figure out how to continue theological education.

The Bible verse helping him persevere:

Mark 14:27–28 – “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Sometimes we find ourselves with Jesus, not because we followed him, but because he comes to us—as now, in our brutal war with Russia. And he asks us as he asked Peter at the Sea of Galilee: “Do you love me?” (John 21:16–17). Still, this comes after breakfast, when he has taken care of us, first. Even when we fail in the challenges of this war, his friendship is available for us to revive in.

What he’s praying for:

I am praying for my wife and many other wives who refused to be evacuated while their husbands stayed behind. But I am also praying that this war will shake the conscience of humanity and the theology of the church. No longer can we elevate a nationalism that so often requires others to be brought low, as we see so many Christians adopting now in Russia.

Oleksandr Geychenko, president of Odessa Theological Seminary:

United World Mission has been a decades-long partner of OTS, located on Ukraine’s western Black Sea shore. As his fellow seminary heads in other cities have turned their campuses into places of refuge, Geychenko has been trying to evacuate the school’s staff and students and provide for them as best he can.

The Bible verse helping him persevere:

1 Corinthians 12:26–27 – If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. Last Sunday, we celebrated our monthly Lord’s Supper for the first time since the war began. The high point was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Do Russian Christians Need More Bonhoeffers?

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons

The first cleric has fallen to Russia’s new law.

Ioann Burdin of Resurrection Church in Kostroma, 215 miles northwest of Moscow, was arrested for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” in his Sunday sermon.

His parish also allegedly shared an anti-war petition.

“We, Christians, cannot stand idly by when a brother kills brother, a Christian kills a Christian,” the statement said, as reported by the BBC’s Russian service. “Let’s not repeat the crimes of those who hailed Hitler’s deeds on Sept. 1, 1939.”

Does Russia—and the world—need more like him?

Christianity Today previously reported the frustration of Ukrainian Christian leaders that their Russian counterparts should be like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The famous German theologian was executed in the waning days of the Third Reich for complicity in an assassination plot against the Fuhrer.

Ukrainian evangelicals want Russian evangelicals to at least speak out.

Hundreds have. But is it fair to ask them to do so? Russia’s new law, passed March 4, provides penalties of up to 15 years in prison for simply calling Putin’s “special military operation” a “war.”

Five European evangelical leaders advised CT on which should be paramount: safety or solidarity.

Esther in the Bible, and Bonhoeffer in history, are exceptional examples of faith. But are they normative for Christians—especially Christian leaders—in times of conflict?

Leonardo De Chirico, chair of the theological commission of the Italian Evangelical Alliance:

In a sense, the whole church has been given a prophetic responsibility to denounce evil and injustice. Then there are specific prophetic callings that individuals receive from God, and they are ready to pay the price of exposing themselves to retaliations and persecutions.

Not all of us are called to be Esthers and Bonhoeffers in all circumstances, but some should. And all should support them in the priestly role of prayer and solidarity.

Loyalty to our nations is good, although it can become an idol. But loyalty to God and his global church takes precedence. I hope and pray that believers across the nations involved will show that their unity in Christ is stronger than their national allegiances.

Marc Jost, general secretary of the Swiss Evangelical Alliance: I was very pleased and encouraged to hear…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Ministries Evacuate as Russians Reach Irpin, the Evangelical Hub of Ukraine

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Evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv.

Anatoly, a 26-year-old member of Irpin Bible Church (IBC), is with the Lord.

His last act on earth was to carry the suitcase of a young mother and her two children, hurrying them across Irpin’s collapsed bridge to safety from Russian shelling.

All four died, when a bombshell landed in the middle of their would-be humanitarian corridor. Eight total died in the suburb of Kyiv yesterday, as Russian troops pressed hard to encircle the Ukrainian capital.

“Anatoly was deeply spiritual, with a good Christian character,” said his pastor, Mykola Romanuk. “When he saw a need, he tried to help.”

Negotiations over the weekend led to several ceasefires for civilian evacuation, only to be quickly broken. Each side blamed the other, and Russia has denied targeting civilians.

But Ukrainian sources describe cities now littered with bombed schools, hospitals, and residential districts—not least in Irpin, known in evangelical circles as the “Wheaton of Ukraine.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s “evangelical patriarch” Gregory Kommendant invited Christian ministries to join him in his hometown, 16 miles northwest of the capital, where he served as president of the All-Ukraine Baptist Union.

As of a few days ago, about 25 ministries operated out of Irpin, including Child Evangelism Fellowship, Youth With a Mission, Youth for Christ, the International Fellowship for Evangelical Students, and Samaritan’s Purse.

Once home to a single evangelical church, Irpin now boasts 13.

“We were here for 20 years, and neighbors never set foot in our church,” said Romanuk. “Now they are living in our basement, praying with us, and have become our friends.”

Describing Irpin as “secular,” Romanuk described his 700-member Baptist congregation as the largest church in the city of 60,000 people. But now, only a team of five remain, called to stay behind and minster to those under siege.

Led by the head of the missions committee, a deacon’s wife—a real estate agent—is the chief cook. She prepares three meals a day for 200 people, as others volunteer to evacuate the shellshocked citizens to western Ukraine.

Since the war began, the church has transported 100-200 evacuees every day, Romanuk said. As the Russians approached, they bused out 3,000. Early on, the government took notice of their efforts and thereafter directed everyone to the church.

Anatoly was one who returned. Originally from Luhansk in the Donbas region, he…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 7, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Hundreds of Russian Pastors Oppose War in Ukraine

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A woman holds a “Stop the war” placard in central Moscow during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on March 3, 2022.

Ukrainian evangelicals have had enough.

Battered by a week of war, they have heard numerous prayers for peace uttered by their Russian colleagues. But they did not hear condemnation.

“Your unions have congratulated Putin, giving thanks for freedom of belief,” said Taras Dyatlik, the Overseas Council regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “The time has come to make use of that freedom.”

As Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and other cities have suffered missile strikes, the United Nations reports the death of more than 200 civilians. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service reports more than 2,000. The military casualties are disputed, with both nations claiming thousands of fatalities among the other’s ranks.

But rather than focusing on the numbers, Dyatlik, who coordinates a regional network of dozens of Protestant seminaries, turned to the Bible.

“Remember Mordechai and Esther,” he wrote March 1 in an open letter. “Do not be like Jehoshaphat, who entered into an alliance with Ahab, and was silent when God spoke through the prophet Micaiah.”

Dyatlik accused his Russian colleagues of buying into national rhetoric—first in 2014, when Russian-backed forces invaded the eastern region of Donbas—and again today. But “begging on my knees,” he leveraged his reputation with the heads of Russia’s evangelical unions—while acknowledging their difficult reality.

“You fear prison,” he said. “[But] do not be faithful to Putin. Be faithful to the body of Christ.”

A new draft law proposes a 15-year prison sentence for “fake” claims about the violence in Ukraine, as authorities crack down on Russians who call the “military operation” a “war.” The Russian parliament, the Duma, is scheduled to discuss such measures on Friday.

Dyatlik was not the only one frustrated. But instead of drawing from Scripture, his colleague Valerii Antoniuk appealed to history.

“Where are your Bonhoeffers, where are your Barths?” asked the head of the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. “Your silence now is the blood and tears of Ukrainian children, mothers, and soldiers—that is on your hands.”

Pavel Kuznetsov, meanwhile, simply wants the correct word used—law or no law.

“Many believers in Russia are praying about the ‘situation’ in Ukraine. The situation is called WAR,” the pastor of Word of Life church in Boyarka, 15 miles southwest of Kyiv, wrote on Facebook. “And when you pray again, tell God it’s war, and we are being killed here.”

As of publication, more than 300 Russian evangelicals had reportedly received the message.

“The time has come when each of us must call things by their real names, while we still have a chance to escape punishment from above, and prevent the collapse of our country,” stated an open letter signed by a group of Russian pastors and other Protestant leaders. “We call on the authorities of our country to stop this senseless bloodshed!”

Their message was also biblical. It quoted…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 3, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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During Sunday Siege, Ukraine’s Churches Persevere

Image: Courtesy of Calvary Chapel of Svitlovodsk

As Russian troops met stiffer resistance than expected from Ukrainian soldiers and citizens in Kyiv and other cities, pastors in both nations adapted Sunday worship services appropriately.

“The whole church prayed on their knees for our president, our country, and for peace,” said Vadym Kulynchenko of his church in Kamyanka, 145 miles south of the capital. “After the service, we did a first-aid training.”

Rather than a sermon, time was given to share testimonies from harrowing days of air raids. Many psalms were offered, and Kulynchenko’s message centered on Proverbs 29:25. Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.

Both disruption and ordinary life were on display at Calvary Chapel of Svitlovodsk.

Andrey and Nadya, displaced from Kyiv by the Russian missile barrage on Thursday, exchanged wedding vows amid great celebration.

Scheduled to be married this weekend in the capital, the couple was instead sent fleeing to Nadya’s home church 185 miles southeast along the Dnieper River—with a request for an impromptu wedding.

“In the middle of a war? That doesn’t make sense!” said Benjamin Morrison, with irony. “But during war is when it makes the most sense. What better reminder that even war cannot stamp out love. And what better way to say that we serve a higher King than to rejoice in the midst of chaos?”

They were married on Saturday, as planned.

On Sunday, the congregation of about 80 people—just beginning to swell with newcomers seeking refuge—regathered to hear a sermon on David and Goliath.

“Yes, David still had to fight. Yes, it was still hard and scary—but God was his confidence,” concluded Morrison, an American missionary veteran of 20 years and married to a Ukrainian.

“May he be ours as well, and may he cut off the head of the enemy.”

Ukraine claimed today that 3,500 Russian soldiers have been killed so far. Russia has not released an official casualty figure.

Regarding its own losses, Ukraine’s Health Ministry counted more than 350 civilians dead and almost 1,700 wounded as of Sunday night. The reported tally combines civilian and military casualties, but broke out 14 child deaths and 116 wounded.

Taras Dyatlik, regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Overseas Council, did the math. If correct, in three days of fighting 40 Russian soldiers died every hour; one soldier every minute and a half.

“These are mostly 19- to 25-year-old children,” he lamented. “The depth of our human brokenness can only be healed by the Holy Spirit.” Metropolitan Epiphanius, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), pleaded for…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 27, 2022. Please click here to read the full text, including several testimonies from Russian pastors.

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As Russia Invades Ukraine, Pastors Stay to Serve, Pray … and Resist

Image: Courtesy of Ukrainian Bible Society
Ukrainians praying in the central square of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

As Russia invaded Ukraine today [yesterday], pressing near even to the capital of Kyiv, a Baptist home was destroyed and a seminary shaken by nearby blasts. Local sources told CT, however, that no churches or Christian buildings had been attacked so far.

President Vladimir Putin announced his forces were targeting only military installations. He also asserted that Ukraine does not truly exist as a nation.

Igor Bandura, vice president of the Baptist Union, the largest Protestant body in Ukraine, heard about collateral damage to the home of a Baptist in Donetsk during a Zoom call with his 25 regional superintendents.

Minus one. On the front lines of the eastern Donbas region, the Baptist leader from the occupied territory of Luhansk was unable to join.

But from the town of Chasov Yor on the front lines in neighboring Donetsk—in an area then still under Ukrainian government control—Bandura learned the local assessment.

“People don’t want to be under Russian control,” he was told. “But they feel helpless. What can ordinary people do?”

Pray. And remain calm.

This was the message put out by the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO), a day after its appeal to Putin went unanswered.

Ukraine’s chief rabbi invited Christian leaders to recite Psalm 31 together.

“We urge you to remain calm, not to give in to panic, and to comply with the orders of the Ukrainian state and military authorities,” stated the UCCRO. “The truth and the international community are on the Ukrainian side. We believe that good will prevail, with God’s help.”

Thousands of Ukrainians fled west as Russian missiles hit targets throughout the nation. Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs reported hundreds of instances of shelling.

President Volodymyr Zelensky announced by video shortly after midnight that 137 Ukrainians died during the invasion’s first day. “They are killing people and transforming peaceful cities into military targets,” he said, according to The New York Times. “That’s villainous and will never be forgiven.”

Valentin Siniy, president of Traviski Christian Institute (TCI) in Kherson, about 50 miles from Crimea, had to evacuate his seminary along with a team of Bible translators as Russian helicopters attacked local targets. “The majority of old pastors…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on February 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Amid War and Rumors of War, Ukraine Pastors Preach and Prepare

Image: Aleksey Filippov / AFP / Getty Images
A cupola of a destroyed Orthodox church is seen in the Donetsk region on Ukraine’s frontline with Russia-backed separatists on February 21, 2022.

Facing imminent war, Ukrainian evangelicals preached peace the day before Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated tensions by recognizing the independence of two separatist regions on Monday evening.

“Go closer to meet those who are against you or fighting you,” Yuriy Kulakevych, foreign affairs director of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, told his congregation on Sunday, February 20, at God’s Peace Pentecostal Church in the capital, Kyiv.

“We are not only to enjoy peace ourselves, but to share it.”

Preaching on the Sermon on the Mount’s injunction toward peacemaking, Kulakevych continued his laser-sharp focus on the possible Russian invasion. Five weeks ago, as the separatist conflict in the eastern Donbas region began to escalate, he surveyed the Bible for its teaching on “wars and rumors of war.”

He followed that with an application of “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and, on the next Sunday, a treatise on worry. Last week, he tried shifting to include more mundane examples in a sermon on Jesus calming the storm, such as pandemic, career, and relationship difficulties. But the Russian threat did not dissipate.

“Protect yourself and your family by all possible means,” Kulakevych told the church. “And serve as a mentor for people in a bad state.”

The latter spirit is also animating Ukraine’s Baptists.

“Pastors in the gray area are not leaving the area,” said Igor Bandura, senior vice president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine, describing the frontline. “Christians are determined to take an active part in the needs of the people around them.”

They have already, planting 25 churches in the past five years. For weeks the Eastern European nation has lived in tension as an…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on February 21, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Interview with Oleksandr Turchynov, Coordinator of Ukraine’s Conservative Movement

(Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images)

CT: How do you interpret Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions on the border, and how likely is a full invasion?

Turchynov: It is rather difficult to interpret, and it is even more difficult to treat him as someone whose actions can be explained with ordinary civilized values.

One aspect involves political and economic interests, such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. At the same time, Putin is raising the stakes as a tactic, issuing ultimatums. His approach serves to further polarization and undermines both NATO and the European Union (EU) concerning the expansion of membership.

It is kind of a game, growing worse for everyone. But if the West and Ukraine were to consolidate their actions, Putin wouldn’t be able to prevail. Full-scale invasion is an extremely dangerous project—mainly for Putin himself. But he is capable of making inadequate decisions.

CT: How have discussions with US President Joe Biden changed the situation, if at all? How do you view the response from the West?

Turchynov: One of Putin’s purposes was a glorious moment of triumph by sitting with President Biden as equals at the table of negotiations. But sometimes it is necessary to talk to a terrorist, to distract him from his acts of terror.

Some Ukrainians wanted to hear a different response from the White House, for example by…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on January 4, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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On Ukraine-Russia Border, Evangelicals Endure as Invasion Looms

Image: Alexander Reka / TASS / Getty Images
A Christmas light installation in Luhansk, Ukraine, by a monument to the 2000th anniversary of the Nativity of Christ, on December 24, 2021

Ukraine celebrates Christmas twice, honoring both the Eastern and Western church calendars. Yet this season, Pentecostals spent the week leading up to December 25 in prayer and fasting while Baptists did the same from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day.

The reason: tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed on the border, threatening a full invasion.

Russian-backed separatists have held control of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine since 2014. This past November, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) declared Donbas “the area of Europe where the church suffers the most.” In total the conflict has killed over 14,000 people and displaced 2 million of the region’s 5 million people.

“Prayer is our spiritual weapon,” said Igor Bandura, vice president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine. “God can undo what the politicians are planning.”

This past Friday, US President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that any further invasion of Ukraine would result in “a heavy price to pay”; Putin replied that any new sanctions would trigger a complete breakdown in relations. On Monday, Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the US and its allies would “respond decisively” to Russian aggression; Zelensky signaled appreciation for the “unwavering support.”

Trying to help years ago from the Russian side, Vitaly Vlasenko was labeled a spy.

Traveling 650 miles south from Moscow to Luhansk, Ukraine, at his own expense, the now–general secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance (REA) waded into a war zone.

By 2018, separtist leaders in Donbas had crafted laws to re-register churches, ostensibly under the principle of freedom of conscience and assembly. But two years prior, authorities in Luhansk declared Baptists and Pentecostals a security threat. Pastors had been murdered; churches were seized.

“Our brothers in Christ in Ukraine are crying out: ‘Why don’t you pressure Russia to stop this aggression?’” said Vlasenko. “We tell them we are a small minority with no standing and no clear information, and officially Russia is not a part of this conflict.”

It does not go over well, he admits. Relations between evangelicals in the neighboring nations have become strained, and some assumed the worst of his December 2018 trip to speak with rebel authorities about the registration process.

Only the KGB-connected could get access, Vlasenko heard.

In reality, Vlasenko said the visit was arranged through prior connections with the Russian Orthodox Church metropolitan in Luhansk. Your church received registration, the REA leader told his Orthodox counterpart; where is our Christian solidarity?

Without registration, churches were disconnected from the gas and electricity grid. All remaining evangelical churches were operating illegally, but some still had use of their facilities. But now it was winter, and cold.

The metropolitan agreed the situation was wrong and facilitated contact with the religious affairs official. Vlasenko was told registration would be given to all who completed procedures. He passed on the information to Ukrainian colleagues. But today, he said, relations are at a standstill.

“I understand they are in a difficult situation,” Vlasenko said. “Most churches have their headquarters in Kyiv, so how can they accept registration and explain this to their brothers in the [Ukrainian] capital?”

But Donbas churches face a choice: Continue to suffer, or continue in ministry. Vlasenko stays neutral, as he cannot advise them as a Russian.

Religious freedom problems in Donbas listed by the EEA include…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on January 4, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Suing for Peace: Can Clerics Reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan Better Than Courts?

Image: Courtesy of Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Information Services
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I reads a joint statement flanked by Armenian Catholicos Karekin II (left) and Azerbaijan Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazade (right) in Moscow on October 13.

After 17 tries, there is still no peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Almost a year ago, Russia brokered a November 2020 ceasefire to end the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Caucasus mountain enclave. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of its internationally recognized territory occupied since 1994 by ethnic Armenians, who demand independence.

Armenia has been a Christian nation since A.D. 301. Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. But spiritual leaders have been no more successful than politicians or generals at securing reconciliation.

Yet that has not stopped Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I from trying.

“Our religions have a unique peace-making potential,” he stated at last week’s tripartite summit of top clerical leaders. “No matter how difficult Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are at this stage, we believe that it is faith in God, and love, that can help heal the wounds.”

And they are many.

The post–Soviet Union conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh—called Artsakh by Armenians—killed 30,000 people and displaced 1 million. As Azerbaijan recaptured the territory—slightly larger than Rhode Island—last year, another 7,000 were killed. Mutual acrimony has characterized relations, with both sides accusing the other of destroying their religious heritage.

The first meeting of spiritual leaders was held in 1993. The 16th in 2017. Simply by bringing these leaders together…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

Donning his Azerbaijani uniform 17 years ago, the ethnic Russian took his post to defend Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave bordering Turkey and separated from their countrymen by the nation of Armenia.

Known in both the Armenian and Azeri languages as “the place of descent,” referring to Noah’s landing on nearby Mt. Ararat, Nakhchivan is a geographical reminder of the mixed ethnic composition of the Caucasus Mountains.

As is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Its etymology is also a reminder of the region’s diversity. Nagorno is Russian for mountains, while Karabakh combines the Turkic for black and the Persian for garden.

Armenians call it Artsakh, the name of a province in their ancient kingdom. For the last three weeks, they have been defending their de facto control of the region as Azerbaijan fights to reassert its sovereignty.

As Melnikov did decades ago in Nakhchivan. Armenian soldiers crossed into Azeri mountain villages, before his unit drove them out.

This was one of the many border conflicts that followed a war of demography. But in the years before and after the 1991 independence of both nations, about 30,000 people were killed as hundreds of thousands on both sides fled or were driven to their lands of ethnic majority.

A 1994 ceasefire established the status quo, and the Minsk Group—headed by Russia, France, and the United States—preside over negotiations.

Despite the previous ethnic violence, Azerbaijan boasts that it remains a nation of multicultural tolerance. Of its 10 million population, 96 percent are Muslim—roughly two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. Russian Orthodox represent two-thirds of the Christian population, while over 15,000 Jews date back to the Old Testament era.

Melnikov is part of the 0.26 percent evangelical community. And on behalf of their nation, eight churches and the Azerbaijan Bible Society wrote an open letter to decry the popular conception that this conflict pits Muslims against Christians. (Nearly 700 Armenian soldiers have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties.)

“The war which has been between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the last 30 years is purely political confrontation, it has no religious context,” they wrote.

“In fact, this history and [the] continuous attempts of Armenia to present this war as a religious one, can become a stumbling block for many Azerbaijani people, who hear [the] gospel nowadays.” An earlier letter by leaders of Azerbaijan’s Muslim, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox communities…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

Fierce fighting has broken out in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black seas, pitting Christian Armenians versus Muslim Azeris.

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

“Early Sunday morning [Sept. 27], I received a phone call from our representative in the capital city,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“He said they are bombing Stepanakert. It is a war.”

One week later, the fighting continues. At stake is control over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 170,000 people in a Delaware-sized mountainous region within Azerbaijan.

More than 200 people have reportedly died, though Azerbaijan has not released its number of casualties.

Administered by ethnic Armenians ever since a ceasefire was declared in 1994, locals call the region the Republic of Artsakh. Military skirmishes have not been unusual. There have been more than 300 incidents since 2015, according to the International Crisis Group.

This escalation is the most serious since 2016, with Azerbaijani forces attacking multiple positions along the 120-mile “line of contact.”

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

As does the role of Turkey—and the Syrian militants it allegedly recruited—which has pledged full support for Azerbaijan.

Russia, France, and the United States—partners in the “Minsk Group” which has overseen negotiations between the two nations since 1992—have called for an immediate ceasefire. But Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s refusal, conditioning a ceasefire on…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 6, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.