Foreign policy attention for most Americans has now shifted away from Russian disruptions in Ukraine. But the threats from Russian president Putin’s aggression continue. The Russian military tests and probes air defenses in Alaska, as well as those of other nations, as the attention of Americans has shifted to events in Iraq and Syria. However, in Ukraine, the situation continues to be deeply troubling, and particularly so for evangelical Christian believers who face persecution and martyrdom. On September 18, 2014, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington. In his speech, Mr. Poroshenko declared Ukraine’s right to self-defense and territorial integrity, and asked the United States to provide military aid and ongoing political support. His speech concluded with a standing ovation from American lawmakers. (Some of my readers may remember that on December 5, 1994, the United States and Great Britain made commitments to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons under The Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances.) After President Poroshenko’s address to Congress, the United States announced an additional $53 million in economic aid to Ukraine, which is, of course, petty cash compared to what United States taxpayers have given, for example, in foreign aid to Hamas in Gaza.
Ukraine’s evangelical Christians today carry a heavy burden from the country’s conflict with pro-Russian separatists and their Russian allies. As one example, Vladimir and Elena Velichko, and their eight children ages 2 to 16, lived in one of the towns attacked by pro-Russian separatists. Vladimir was an evangelical church leader, but as a result of the fighting, Vladimir sent his wife and children to another city for safety. Elena said, “He took us to the train station, and we said goodbye. He said, ‘I love you.’ He kissed me and kissed the children, and left.” On June 8, 2014, their church was half empty as many parishioners had left the city because of the fighting. But when church services ended, a number of church leaders were kidnapped. Elena said, “The church called and said that my husband, along with three other believers, had been taken by men who were waiting outside the church.” A church deacon who was present at church that morning, Alexander Gayvoronski, said, “The men wore masks and had machine guns. They told the four Christian men to get into their cars.” The men were later found shot multiple times, and Elena’s husband was burned in an abandoned car. Elena powerfully said, “I don’t hate my husband’s killers. It is easy to start asking questions. Why did this happen? But if I keep thinking about this it will only wear me out.” That same day, pro-Russian separatists burned down a furniture factory that belonged to other evangelical Christians in that town. It was clear that the pro-Russian separatists were targeting the city’s evangelical community. Sergey Demidovich, an evangelical leader in Eastern Ukraine, said Ukrainian Christians face constant threat. Demidovich said, “I never thought in the 21st century, in [a] free country as Ukraine, it was possible to experience this level of persecution. The separatists saw Protestant Christians as enemies. They viewed us as cults. All the Protestant churches in the city were either taken over by rebels or forced to close. We were forbidden to meet for services, and the leadership forced to leave or be under risk of arrest.”
Many evangelicals in Ukraine believe that the persecution is linked to pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church. Anatoly, an evangelical pastor from Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, said, “When I was in prison, a rebel soldier told me they have an order to kill all the Christian pastors who are not part of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Perhaps that is so or not, but it is not an uncommon perception in light of the fact that great persecution against evangelical Christians took place during the Soviet era, when such persecution was often aided by Orthodox clergy and prelates. And yet today, media reports indicate that only four percent of Russia’s self-identified Orthodox Christians attend church regularly, and Russia has among the highest rates of abortion, divorce, prostitution and corruption in the world.
Importantly, Elena only asks from us prayers for her and for her eight young children. Today, there are thousands of refugees and other affected families in Ukraine. With winter approaching, it is vital that we pray for our brothers and sisters as we seek to do all that we can to help, even as the eyes of the world have now turned elsewhere. I encourage you and your churches to pray for the Ukrainian Christians, both Orthodox and evangelical, that they will seize every opportunity for presenting the Holy Gospel. The crisis in Ukraine is not over, but the opportunity to reach those without Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is greater than ever. May God comfort the families of all of the victims of repression and persecution in Ukraine, and may God give peace to the memory of Vladimir Velichko and his fellow-martyrs.