By Michael R. Finch
The rebel forces currently holding parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine have targeted and persecuted Protestants and Jews pervasively since the beginning of their war with Ukraine. Many Protestants and Jews have been abducted, threatened and even killed.
The darkness and isolation of a bouncing car trunk was the “quiet place” that Nikolay gave what he thought would be his last confession.
“During the ride I confessed all my sins,” Nikolay said. “I felt sad that I would never see how my son Danimir matures.”
The bottom of the trunk slowly became wet with Nikolay’s blood from a gunshot wound he received running from Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) soldiers. In an odd twist of fate, the gunshot wound was likely what saved Nikolay’s life, as it spared him from intense questioning and potential torture. It then allowed him to be placed in a hospital with minimal security from which he could escape through the help of some friends.
Nikolay’s story is just one of many harrowing tales coming out of the war zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. He is a more dramatic example of the widespread persecution Evangelical and Protestant Christians and Jews are receiving throughout the war zone. The separatist armies have targeted non-Orthodox churches, pastors and believers according to numerous sources.
Several leaders of the Evangelical and Protestant churches of Ukraine recently posted a statement online that said, “Christians in the eastern regions, especially evangelical organizations, are increasingly becoming victims of religious persecution.”
The statement is signed by nine senior officials from Baptist, Lutheran, and independent denominations.
The reasons for targeting Evangelicals, Protestants and Jews are both cultural and situational according to several Ukrainian pastors and missionaries interviewed for this story. Separatists are culturally Russian Orthodox, and many pastors have reported being told that the separatists plan to eradicate anything but the Orthodox Church in the region.
“Their slogan is, ‘[Russian] Orthodoxy or death,’” Pastor Elisey of Revival Protestant Church in Ukraine said. “The army of Russian-backed terrorists is carrying the idea of bringing a Russian world here. The crusaders believe that their vocation is to bring enlightenment.”
The separatists are said to believe that because Evangelicals, Protestants and Jews are not Orthodox they hold a “Western” worldview, and are therefore seen as enemies or dissidents.
“Evangelicals are not only seen as foreign, but also Western,” Donetsk Christian University President Oleksii said. “This attitude toward Evangelicals in the short term contributed primarily to pro-Russians making threats and being unmerciful toward Evangelicals. Those Evangelicals who suffered most were either assumed by pro-Russian bands to be supporters of the unity of Ukraine, or just happened to have property the pro-Russians liked.”
The interesting thing about Eastern Ukrainian Evangelicals and Protestants is that they are not uniformly pro-Western. Many actually were “Putin supporters” according to a missionary from the region.
This missionary noted how he thought it was ironic that the separatists based their rebellion on the persecution of ethnic Russians – which really wasn’t happening. And now that the separatists are in control, they are persecuting minority groups on a massive scale.
“The whole war was precipitated on the idea that Eastern Ukrainians were being persecuted, and now we’re seeing quite the opposite,” he said.
In spite of the overt persecution some pastors in the region still focus back on their faith.
“The good thing is that in these circumstances non-Christians become very sensitive and open to spiritual realities,” Pastor Elisey said. “We try to find good even in situations like this.”
THE LOCAL CHURCHES:
“A lot of my friends and colleagues were being threatened,” said the missionary. “The DPR or the LPR would call or go into churches and threaten them. They would say, ‘you’re hiding revolutionaries,’ or ‘your hiding ‘bandereti’ which is a group that existed during WWII but doesn’t even exist today. They would threaten like this and then say, ‘if we find any of these we will kill you.’”
Local churches and synagogues have been targeted for intimidation, looting, vandalism and also conscription by the separatists since the separatists took control of the area in April. At least eight churches (though the numbers are likely significantly higher) were forcibly taken over by the separatists, and the Evangelical Donetsk Christian University was taken over by the DPR. Of the churches that were taken, several have been freed by the Ukrainian armies. Many were badly damaged or destroyed as a result of the occupation.
Though pastor Elisey’s church was not taken over, he said, “one of our buildings, a rehabilitation center, was destroyed by a bomb, and a few days ago our church was damaged by artillery fire.”
While church seizures, vandalism, murder and beatings were relatively common, the thing that was pervasive for all Protestant and Evangelical Christians was terror.
“The common problem for all…evangelicals was the spirit of terror,” Oleksii said. “They may do to you whatever they wish, and there is nobody who may protect you.”
THE PRAYER TENT:
A prayer tent in Donetsk marked a specific example of the targeting of Christians. A pastor named Sergei put up a prayer tent in the central park of the city to pray for peace in Ukraine. The DPR came and told him he had to move his prayer tent to another park, so he did.
Many people came to the prayer tent and prayed over a period of several weeks – and many people praying held Ukrainian flags while they prayed for the peace of Ukraine.
One day a carload of people came to the prayer tent and attacked anyone holding a Ukrainian flag. So they stopped carrying flags, but kept praying for the peace of Ukraine.
Then the DPR sent troops to the prayer tent to shut it down. They beat the pastor severely and destroyed the tent. When the DPR left the pastor a soldier told him, “When we get done with all of this we are going to get rid of you [Evangelicals and Protestants] and the Jews.”
THE FOUR MARTYRS:
The church service at the Transfiguration Evangelical Church had just ended and most of the members brave enough to still attend had left the building. Then, soldiers from the DPR stormed the church and arrested pastors Volodymir Velychko and Victor Bradarskii as well as the two adult sons of the pastor of the church, Ruvim and Albert.
These men were targeted specifically because of their faith, but since the event it is also believed that they were targeted because someone in the DPR wanted their cars.
According to reports from interviews and the bodily remains of the four men, the pastors were tortured extensively after their capture before they were murdered. Then their bodies were placed in a mass grave that held 14 other victims of the DPR.
Several mass graves have been revealed as the Ukrainian army takes back territory from the DPR. The number of Evangelicals in the graves is unknown.
THE CURRENT SITUATION:
The stories above are just a sample of the many coming from this region. According to all interviewed such persecution will continue as long as the separatist forces control the area. This has caused many to flee the region.
Nikolay and his family have left the war-torn region and are staying with relatives in Kiev. They are part of a mass exodus of Protestants, Jews and many of the general population who are now fleeing the regions still embroiled in battle. The front of the war is narrowing, but from numerous reports it seems that this has concentrated the fighting, making escape a more treacherous thing for those who have not yet fled the region.
“Please pray about peace and for the end of the war,” Pastor Elisey asked at the end of his interview. “And if you can, financially support ‘evacuation’ projects. Prepare for the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ukraine, for even when the war ends we will face a huge humanitarian crisis.”
(First names were used to help protect the privacy of the individuals who were willing to be quoted. I spoke with several others who didn’t want to be included in the article at all, but attested to everything written above)
Statement by Evangelical Leaders:
Video of bodies of martyrs and others being exhumed:
Finch works as a professor and student media adviser at Lee University. He writes about digital media, journalism and the intersection of media and faith. All rights reserved. about.me/michael.finch