Trying to help, 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. Russian-backed separatists have held control of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine since 2014, and by 2018 had crafted laws to re-register churches, ostensibly under the principle of freedom of conscience and assembly.
But two years prior, the rebel authorities in Luhansk declared Baptists and Pentecostals a security threat. Pastors had been murdered; churches were seized. In total the conflict has killed over 14,000 people and displaced 2 million of Donbas’s 5 million people.
And currently, tens of thousands of Russian troops are on the border, threatening a full invasion.
“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, 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. Staying neutral as a Russian, Vlasenko cannot advise them.
To date, only a few evangelical churches have been “legalized” in Luhansk. Igor Bandura, vice president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine, said the registration process is designed to be impossible. But in occupied Donetsk, the other half of the Donbas region and also operating under its own rebel laws and leadership, there has been more flexibility.
Luhansk officially designated the Baptist Union as a terrorist group, Bandura said, so the church there is underground. Overall in Donbas, only half of about 100 churches are still functional. Procedures are underway with the rebel authorities in Donetsk to unite three separate Baptist groups under one umbrella, in order to secure registration.
“If this is how you can preserve your churches and ministries, we are not against it,” Bandura said. “We do not encourage or recommend anything—and assume any arrangement is temporary.”
Other groups in Donetsk still find the requirements to be cumbersome. But Yuriy Kulakevych, foreign affairs director of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, thinks things may be moving forward.
“Russia likes to show it keeps to international standards of freedom of religion,” he said. “But for now, we are illegal, told to sit down and keep quiet.”
The situation is different in Crimea, he said, which in 2014 was also seized by Russian-backed separatists. Russia conducted a referendum on annexation soon after and formally—though illegally under international law—incorporated the Black Sea peninsula into its territory.
Pentecostals acquiesced to the new reality.
“We saw it as then the best possible means to survive,” said Kulakevych. “And Russian Pentecostal leadership are all Ukrainian missionaries from 30 years ago; we know them.”
But not all relations are good. What he called the second-largest Pentecostal group in Russia is headed by a leader “100 percent committed to the Kremlin agenda in Ukraine.”
Even within his own network, relations were difficult. Kulakevych spoke of Ukrainian Pentecostal frustration in 2014 and onward, when Russian counterparts failed to protest against their suffering. But later, they learned that as citizens, Russian evangelicals suffer even more.
In August, Russia declared Ukraine’s New Generation Pentecostal groups “undesirable,” effectively banning them from the country. And in October, regulations took effect to demand all foreign-trained clergy and missionaries take an official course on church-state relations and recertify their ministry.
The outrage has been felt in Ukraine, and Kulakevych has pleaded on behalf of his Russian brethren.
“I have to calm down our hotheads [in Ukraine], who demand [Russian evangelicals] speak out against Putin,” he said. “We are not in their shoes, and do not understand the risks they take for the gospel.”
Bandura reached a similar understanding two years ago, when the Baptist Union of Russia came to Ukraine. Disturbed by years of quiet acquiescence, coupled with prominent examples of public anti-Ukrainian sentiment, the Russian and Ukrainian Baptist leaders held face-to-face meetings that helped heal relationships, Bandura said. After two days of closed-door sessions with no public statements, the issues between them were solved.
“We understand the religious freedom situation in Russia is terrible and don’t expect them to speak out bravely for us,” Bandura said. “It is enough if they keep silent.”
Vlasenko, however, wants to speak—carefully. He believes in the independence of Ukraine. He wants evangelicals in both countries to communicate to their national leaders that war is not the answer to political problems. And as a pastor he believes he must pursue peace—and reconciliation.
But Russia is unnerved also. If Ukraine joins NATO, ballistic missiles could be minutes from Moscow. It is good for peace, said Vlasenko, that Russia can build natural gas pipelines to Europe. And he has spoken to Crimeans—they wanted annexation, he says, and Ukraine would never have permitted a referendum.
As for the aggression in Donbas, the popular understanding among locals was that Ukraine’s 2014 revolution installed a nationalistic government that wanted to kick out—even kill—Russian-speakers in their historic region.
“Maybe it was true, or maybe it was propaganda,” Vlasenko said. “But Russia denies they are fighting, and I cannot prove otherwise without official evidence.”
But still: “Obviously the weapons come from somewhere; you cannot buy a tank at a store.”
The situation, however, is straightforward for Ukrainians.
“Ukraine has always irritated Russia,” said Oleksandr Turchynov, former interim president of Ukraine and a lay preacher in his Baptist church in Kyiv [full interview below]. “Democracy, and even our very existence, is a threat to Putin’s regime.”
Kyiv was the ancient heart of medieval Rus, long before the modern Russian nation. Putin has written a 5,000-word essay on the “historical unity” of the two nations, which he often combines with Belarus under the concept of “one Russia.”
Turchynov, currently coordinator of Ukraine’s Conservative Movement (known as Sobor) uniting faith-based nonprofit organizations, is not pleased with the negotiation style of European nations that are trying to “reconcile” Russia and Ukraine as if they are equally at fault in this conflict. He sees Putin as using natural gas to win leverage and divide the continent. Yet the key ally of former president Petro Poroshenko said he is eager for Ukraine to join NATO and strengthen conservative values within the liberal European Union.
But Turchynov’s ultimate hope is elsewhere.
“The Lord will ruin all the wrongdoings of the evil one,” he said. “Truth is with us, and thus God is with us. And where God is, the victory is also.”
Overall, Ukrainian evangelicals are giving the crisis to God. The Pentecostals finished a week of prayer and fasting on Christmas. The Baptists began the day of Christmas and concluded after New Year’s Day.
“Prayer is our spiritual weapon,” said Bandura. “God can undo what the politicians are planning.”
But even Christmas gets mixed up in the politics. Evangelicals largely celebrate both December 25—made an official Ukrainian holiday two years ago—and the Orthodox date of January 7. But while the metropolitan of the recently autocephalous (independent) Ukrainian Orthodox Church has announced his hope to unite all Christians under the Western calendar within 10 years, he is playing it slow to recruit parishes still loyal to the Moscow patriarch.
Cyril Hovorun, a Ukrainian priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, faults his patriarch in Moscow for aligning religion to the interests of the state. But he warns Ukrainian Christians also of the danger of nationalism. A “third way” is necessary, he said, for the church to support civil society and civic values: transparency, justice, and solidarity.
Can his evangelical brethren find at least the latter?
“We all say we are part of the kingdom of God together,” Vlasenko said. “But when it comes to politics, we immediately divide again.”