Ukraine Christians Caught in a “Political Maelstrom” as Tensions Mount

Rob Kerby | Contributor | Friday, June 20, 2014

Ukraine Christians Caught in a “Political Maelstrom” as Tensions Mount

Ukrainian believers are being caught in the violent and growing conflict between their homeland and Russia, the superpower that has dominated their nation for centuries.

This spring, separatists – believed to be actively supported by Moscow – succeeded in splitting off the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. In a referendum, residents then voted to become a part of Russia.

“Churches in Crimea and beyond find themselves at the center of a political maelstrom,” reports the Christian advocacy group Open Doors in a guest blog in the Christian Post. “Stories of violence and intimidation against non-Russian Orthodox Christians in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian groups are already surfacing.”

Meanwhile, “Russia has redeployed more troops to the Ukrainian border,” reported Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Carol Morello for the Washington Post, “including special forces units that are arming and training pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, U.S. officials said Friday, as fighting continued to flare in the region.”

In Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said a week-long, unilateral cease-fire would begin immediately, to give pro-Russian separatists a chance to surrender their weapons and stop fighting.

However, the Post reported tanks and heavy artillery departing from sites in southwestern Russia and heading toward the border, according to a senior U.S. official. The Ukrainian government has said Russian tanks have already entered into eastern Ukraine but those reports have not been confirmed by the United States, said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak for attribution.

“The pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine has deepened the country's religious divide as two Orthodox Churches tied to rival patriarchates in Moscow and Kiev support opposite sides in the conflict,” reported the Agence France-Presse

“Orthodox churches in Crimea have experienced a bitter divide between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian sympathizers,” reported Open Doors. “Churches with a pro-Ukrainian stance have experienced discrimination since the referendum. Ukraine's Liga News website reported a disturbing incident on June 1 in which a group of armed men in traditional Cossack clothes attacked the Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate. The attackers smashed through the door, ransacked the church and attacked the priest, Ivan Katkalo, and parishioners, including a pregnant woman who came to the priest's aid.”

When police arrived three hours later, they allegedly sided with the attackers, “stating that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) was anti-Russian, and therefore had no place in Crimea,” according to Open Doors.

Meanwhile, Protestants were also experiencing severe stress. “In one of the latest known incidents,” reported Stefan J. Bos for BosNewsLife, “about 25 armed men, wearing Balaclava masks, seized the Central Church of Christ  and ‘a ministry training school’ in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlovka during Sunday morning worship on May 25, Christians said. The Protestant church was meeting in an art museum that also housed the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Ukraine, an extension of the Denver-based Bear Valley Bible Institute.”

Pastor Andrew Zhuravlev, who also teaches at the Bible Institute, told Bos that the commander had told him the soldiers were Russian troops and he "told us that any denominations apart from the Eastern Orthodox [Moscow Patriarchate] are illegal on this territory.”

“This officer gave us three hours to take some our things out of the building, after that the building was ’cleaned’ – that meant that remaining things were destroyed and we don’t have any access to the building or neighbouring land,” Zhuravlev told Christian news agency World Watch Monitor. “Of course, we were shocked because of all that, children were crying of fear, one young Christian lady fainted, and some started arguing with soldiers trying to get the building back.”

 “Ukraine's new president has ordered security officials to create a corridor for safe passage for thousands of civilians fleeing war-torn eastern regions, including non-Russian Orthodox Christians who have reported intimidation by pro-Russian separatists,” 

Some Church leaders such as the Metropolitan of Donetsk and Mariupol, Illarion, have refused to take sides. "The Church has no right to support either side in this fratricidal war and there can be no divine blessing for violating the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'," the Metropolitan said in an address that was read Sunday in all of his churches across the Donetsk region. 

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992 following Ukraine's independence from the former Soviet Union and has so far remained in bitter opposition to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Last week, rebels in Donetsk abducted Polish Catholic priest Pawel Witek, and held him captive for 24 hours. Protestant pastor Sergiy Kosyak was beaten for four hours with sticks and batons on Wednesday at the separatists' headquarters in Donetsk, according to Agence France-Press. 

His hand bandaged and bruises still visible on his body, the pastor told AFP: "Several people were beating me, there was even a woman. Doctors diagnosed me with a brain concussion." 

"Religious intolerance is on the rise," he said, adding that he fears the return of Soviet-era persecution.

Publication date: June 20, 2014

Ukraine Christians Caught in a “Political Maelstrom” as Tensions Mount