I am sure over the last months you have heard more news about Ukraine than perhaps at any other time in your lifetime. Having worked in this region of the world for many years, through many highs and lows, I hope to offer a perspective that you may not have heard on the regular twenty four hour news cycle. As our focus is on the church and God’s kingdom rather than the political situation I will focus my few comments on how our brothers and sisters are being affected.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s, evangelical Christianity in Ukraine has been growing exponentially. The laws and political structures have been far more conducive to such growth than most of the other post-Soviet states, including Russia. Political leaders have even been openly practising Baptists and Pentecostals, something unheard of in the past. Of all evangelicals, the Baptists are the largest group, only second in number in all of Europe to the Baptists in UK.
Ukraine has not only become a center of evangelical training, again due to fewer government restrictions, but also a key mobilizer of missionaries to countries of the former Soviet Union. This is due to a similar culture and language. For example, of the evangelical churches in Russia, 50% are said to be pastored by those of Ukrainian heritage.
Over the last decade, Ukraine has become the hub of Evangelical Christianity in Eastern Europe. While the nineties saw great religious freedom throughout the countries of the previous Soviet Union, from about the year 2000 onward, the various countries of the once Soviet Union took different paths. While Ukraine remained more open to religious groups other than Orthodox, countries such as Russia and Belarus began tightening up religious freedoms for evangelicals. These restrictions were often motivated and carried out by the Russian Orthodox Church.
While perhaps not the main reason, this desire to return once Soviet countries to the pure Orthodox fold is believed by some to be the motivation to reign in Ukraine’s aspirations. Of course with dire consequences for the population as well as the Church in the country. This may serve to explain Putin’s own speech in which he said about Ukraine that it was an “inherent part of our own history, cultural, and spiritual space.”
Since 2014, in the separatist controlled Luhansk area of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian Baptist Union has been designated as a terrorist group, their hymnal banned, and all 44 Baptist churches in the region have been closed. Pastors have been beaten and one of the older pastors from the region said that the persecution he was facing “was worse than anything he had lived through during the times of the USSR.” In other regions like Donetsk, the restrictions have been more like what is typical in Russia today.
In Russia today, at best, there is conditional toleration for evangelical believers and churches/organizations. As long as they stay in their building, in their own lane and keep quiet they are tolerated. The anti-evangelism law, passed in 2016 under the guise of “anti-terrorism,” prevents believers from sharing their faith outside of the church. Though initially directed towards Muslims and fringe groups, the law has actually been used most often against Russian evangelicals. Today, passing out New Testaments or meeting in small groups in a home to talk about the Bible is punishable with fines in Russia today, depending upon how aggressive local officials happen to be.
If what has occurred in Crimea and the Donbas is any indication, there is no reason to think that things would be any different in other parts of Ukraine if they were to eventually be under the control of the Kremlin. This does not mean that God’s ultimate plan for his Church can be thwarted by one man or even a country. However, there will likely be consequences as to the degree the Ukrainian evangelical Church will be able to influence its neighbour countries. Yet even in spite of the war we have seen how church leaders have continued to shepherd their flock, even though many of the men have had to take up arms. They continue to care for their people and this war has revealed the true strength of the Ukrainian Church.
So while we identify and pray with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters as we watch the news, let us also remember to pray for our Russian brothers and sisters as they also face restrictions. It is so important to maintain a heavenly kingdom perspective, rather than an earthly, nationalistic one. Only then will we be available to be used by God to see his “kingdom come and his will be done on earth even as it is being done in heaven.”