As the world looks on at Russia’s attack on Ukraine what could this mean for Christians in that country?
In those parts of Ukraine that were already under Russian separatist control many Protestant churches have faced restrictions, with church services being closed and books banned.
Pro-Russian rebels took over parts of the Luhansk region of Ukraine in March 2014. The following month they proclaimed an independent republic, which was recognised by Russia on February 21, 2022. That same day, Russia also recognised another breakaway region: the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
Attack on religious freedom
In almost eight years under Russian control, freedom of religion has come under severe attack in those two areas.
Norway-based Forum 18 says that in those areas all Protestant communities have been made illegal, along with any church not part of the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox community.
The breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) passed the Religion Law on February 17, 2018. This required every religious community to re-register with the authorities.
‘In other words, apply for permission to exist’, according to Forum 18. The justification given was ‘to secure the defence of the country and the security of the state’.
Then in March 2019 all Baptist Union congregations were ordered to halt public worship or face punishment. Since the passing of the Religion Law, registration has been refused for every Protestant, Baptist and Pentecostal community.
‘The situation for all Protestant churches is bad,’ a Protestant from Kyiv told Forum 18. ‘We do not have registration and do not have the right to meet in our buildings, which have been closed.’
John’s Gospel banned
Along with the closing of churches, the Russian-backed authorities banned a number of Christian books as “extremist”. These included an edition of the Gospel of John.
Among the 12 titles banned in Luhansk are a Baptist hymnbook and books by Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham. The Justice Ministry added these books to its State List of Extremist Materials.
One pastor told Forum 18: ‘If the word of God – the gospel of John – is deemed extremist, this represents a rebellion against God himself and everything sacred.’
In Luhansk, the State Security Ministry (SSM) banned all Ukrainian Baptist Union communities. According to Forum 18, the secret police have carried out repeated raids on places of worship and unregistered religious communities, denying them access to their own buildings and preventing them from carrying out social welfare activities.
Christian communities have been put under surveillance, and gas, water and electricity have been cut off to all places of worship owned by unregistered communities.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said several religious communities in Russian-held parts of Luhansk and Donetsk ‘continue to face limitations on their enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief’.
Says Forum 18: ‘Repeated raids on places of worship and re-registration denials left many communities in a state of uncertainty.’
In Krasnodon, close to Russia’s eastern border, police raided a Baptist church during Sunday worship. They forced church members to disperse and stay away until the church got its registration. One church member told Forum 18: ‘If they continue to meet, they will be taken to court, fined, and the house where they hold their services will be sealed.’
But the Christian insisted Baptists would continue to meet regardless. Church members told the police: ‘Christ’s commandments are higher than human laws. We cannot fulfil laws which contradict the holy scripture, because we serve God who is the highest power over all.’
Release International’s sister organisations have been providing Bibles for Ukraine, including the Russian-separatist areas.
A partner of Release International is currently in Ukraine and was shaken from his sleep on February 24 by powerful explosions, as the Russian attack began. Ukrainian air defences were shooting down Russian missiles or drones in the sky over Kyiv.
He told Release International: ‘The truth is that the real war has begun. The entire territory of Ukraine is under fire. There is no safe place and the goal has been to sow panic everywhere. Our hope is in the Lord.’
Please pray for the nation of Ukraine at this time. Pray particularly for those Christians in the disputed areas, who have lived under restrictions in the last few years. Pray also for the safety of the Release International partner currently in Ukraine.
Source: Forum 18