Christians on both sides kill each other


By Sofia Kochmar
Catholic News Agency

.- Conflict in eastern Ukraine which began in April 2014 has pitted the country's government against separatists widely believed to be backed by Russia, and some are attributing the chaos to a failed evangelization in the country.

Fr. Wojciech Surówka, a Dominican priest who directs the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Religious Sciences in Kyiv, urged that “a dialogue of reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians should begin from the Church. If we do not start it, politicians will never do it. It would be nice if the formula of 'forgive and ask forgiveness' were delivered simultaneously by the Ukrainian and Russian bishops.”

“This war is the failure of our evangelization. If Christians on both sides kill each other, then we did not teach them well who Christ is. They absolutely do not understand the essence of Christianity. It's our fault. In the conflict in Rwanda last century, the bishops recognized it – I expect this step from the confessions in Ukraine,” Fr. Surówka told CNA.

According to the estimates of the United Nations, the conflict has led to more than 1 million displaced persons in Ukraine, and nearly 6,000 dead.

Some of the victims are civilians, uninvolved in military conflict, killed when pro-Russian militants fired on residential areas in Mariupol and Kramatorsk, hitting a bus stop, and a hospital. It is difficult to check the number of prisoners on both sides. On Sunday, during a memorial service for the victims of the Maidan protests, explosives fell in Kharkov, in central Ukraine, far from the conflict zone, killing two and wounding 10.

The fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists – widely believed to be supported by Russian troops and arms – and the Ukrainian government last April. The month before, Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
In areas controlled by the separatists, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church allied with the Russian Orthodox Church is favored, to the exclusion of other Christian groups.

Mykhailo Cherenkov grew up in Donetsk, and was born into a family of Baptists: his father is Russian, and his mother Ukrainian. After his education at a local university, he served as rector of Donetsk Christian University, a Protestant institution. Now his university is a pro-Russian military base, home to around 400 militants.

Mykhailo lives in Kyiv now.

"In December I went to Donetsk. I couldn’t get into my university. There is too much military security. The place has become hostile,” he said.

In the territories controlled by separatists, the only “legitimate” Christian body is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Other Churches and ecclesial communities do not have the possibility of holding services.

"Protestant pastors should either go underground or leave Donbas. Churches and schools, all infrastructure are confiscated. They can continue to pray - but not participate in public life,” the former rector of Donetsk Christian University explained to CNA.

Roman Catholic priests of Polish citizenship were forced to leave Donbas; the Polish government evacuated them, along with its other civilians there. Now parishioners in Luhansk watch their priest say Mass via Skype: he is in Poland, and they are in the conflict zone. In Donetsk one Roman Catholic priest has remained, as he has local residency. The rest of the priests are serving in the territories controlled by Ukrainian authorities. In Donetsk, a Grad rocket system damaged the chapel of the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of St. Vladimir the Great of Paris told CNA that “since July, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop has been forced out of his seat. He is still in his diocese, in an unoccupied area, but his residence, chancery, and all documents are under the control of terrorists. Most of the clergy have been forced out of the occupied territories. A number of Roman and Greek Catholic priests were abducted. Those that remain are under constant, direct and indirect threat.”

Last summer, the Greek Catholic priest Fr. Tikhon Kulbacka was held for 10 days by the “Russian Orthodox Army” – a radical militant group active in Donbas, and which uses “Orthodox ideology.”

Cherenkov – the Baptist from Donetsk – commented that “the Russian Orthodox Army can be as  dangerous as the Islamic State, because they are using tools of terror in the name of Orthodoxy!”

But in the central office of Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), they denied any relation to this group.
"If a person takes up weapons and goes to kill in the name of Jesus Christ, it is schizophrenia, but not Christianity. These groups have nothing to do with the Orthodox Church,” Fr. Mykola Danylevych, assistant director of the UOC's external relations office, told CNA.

“They use these pseudo-Orthodox slogans to create an ideology for their quasi-states. But in reality they just use the Church, not having anything in common with it.”

Bishop Gudziak, who is head of external relations for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said that “in the short term, the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate has acted as an apologist for the Russian annexation of Crimea and Putin’s invasion in Eastern Ukraine does not go well for ecumenism.”

“What is more serious for Moscow Patriarchate,” he continued, “is the fact that its leadership, which has not only failed to speak out critically against government policy, has acted as apologist and ideologue for the rise of aggressive Russian nationalism. This leadership has been losing credibility in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church is heavily subsidized by the Russian government. The price of these subsidies is silence before their president’s warmongering and aggressive ideology. Today the population of Russia is being hypnotized into a trance of aggression. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t speak out against propaganda, and often acts as an agent of it.”

In addition to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), there are two other Orthodox Churches which have claimed autocephaly, but are not recognized by other Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Fr. Danylevych, of the UOC (Moscow Patriarchate), said: "If we will try to proclaim autocephaly today, it will lead us to new division. Unfortunately, the conflict in the Donbas has only increased among men those dividing lines that already existed. We, as a Church, feel very much these identities of Ukraine: Ukrainian and Russian, eastern and western. We try to keep a balance between these two. Ideologies separate us, but in Christ we are united.”

“Therefore, if a person recognizes his God and Savior Jesus Christ, and the Orthodox Church as the Church - this is our man. We need to learn to live in a Church, despite the personal ideological differences,” Fr. Danylevych said, describing his Church.

Cherenkov stated that “the Church should keep unity, without sacrificing morality: those who came with weapons onto the territory of their brother, became enemies. It is useless to forgive someone who has not passed through repentance. Our unity is not broken when we do not communicate, but when we lie to each other. The issue of Christian unity is not to pretend that between us nothing happened, but to look for reasons why it happened, and honestly recognize them. To recognize aggression - it's not politics; it is elementary Christian ethics, because in this way we get up in defense against inhumane acts, fratricidal war, and the seizure of foreign territories, which undermine peace in the world.”

Fr. Surówka, who studied ecumenical theology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, reflected that “without prejudice to the dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Vatican could more frankly say what Church thinks about it. The Catholic Church has to say: 'Yes, we would like to conduct ecumenical dialogue with you; but that you support terrorists is unacceptable for us.' It could move us back in ecumenical cooperation, but it would become an expression of our humanity.”

During the Ukrainian bishop's ad limina visit to Rome last week, Pope Francis reminded them of their duties to justice and truth amid their country's crisis.

Cherenkov commented that in the crisis, “church diplomacy should give its authoritative word.  The World Council of Churches is the only place where the heads of Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches can meet. Patriarch Kirill could influence the politics of Putin.”


Protecting the Russian World

Christians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are suffering religious persecution at the hands of the Russian government and pro-Russian separatists, respectively. Based on numerous reported cases*, it appears that this persecution is largely due to Russia’s escalating anti-Western sentiments, as well as its desire to assert the dominance of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine are attempts to purge the nation of Western influence, which includes all religions other than Russian Orthodoxy. Russia has also isolated itself from the international sphere, and the government is using anti-Western propaganda to fuel support for its escalating aggression in Ukraine.

Russia’s actions in Crimea and its support of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have already significantly impacted the religious diversity in these regions, and have resulted in hundreds of cases of severe religious persecution. The following groups are the most responsible for this religious persecution:

  • Pro-Russian separatists (separatist groups, such as the Donetsk People’s Republic)
  • Religious leaders of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate
  • Fanatical movements, such as the Russian Orthodox Army
  • Cossacks - paramilitary groups

Religious Persecution in Crimea

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Russian government ordered all religious organizations in the region to re-register in accordance with Russian legislation. As of January 1, 2015, there were 2,220 registered religious organizations in Crimea, with only 1,546 operating as legal entities. Religious organizations belonging to the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and the Crimean Tatars have experienced the greatest difficulty with the registration process.

In addition to re-registration requirements, Russia has been using the fight against Western “terrorism” and “extremism” as an excuse to persecute members of pro-Ukrainian religious organizations in Crimea. Searches have been conducted in locations where religious organizations hold services, religious literature has been confiscated and banned, and interrogations have been conducted. Many Christian pastors and Catholic priests have been forced to flee Crimea due to death threats, property confiscation, and immigration issues. A number of buildings belonging to the Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate have also been transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Overall, Russia is attempting to bring all religious organizations in Crimea under its own religious policy so that it can establish the supremacy of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in the region. This will subsequently allow the Russian government to expand its power in the region.

Religious Persecution in Eastern Ukraine

In 2014, hundreds of Christians in eastern Ukraine suffered religious persecution by pro-Russian separatists. On May 16, 2014, the Donetsk People’s Republic, the prominent pro-Russian separatist group in the Donetsk region, adopted a “constitution,” which asserted the supremacy of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Russia’s anti-Western propaganda further motivated the separatists to assert the dominance of Russian Orthodoxy in eastern Ukraine, which has led to severe religious persecution of Christians in the region.

Numerous Christians suffered abduction, torture, arson, property confiscation, death threats, physical violence, expatriation, and even murder at the hands of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. These Christians were persecuted solely because they did not belong to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Those who were tortured suffered various injuries, including beatings, stab wounds, broken bones, dislocated joints, or burns from electric shocks.

In addition to violent persecutory actions against Christians, pro-Russian separatists also seized numerous churches and other Christian facilities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of eastern Ukraine in 2014. While some churches were burned to the ground, most of them are now used as barracks, warehouses, or weapon storage, while others have been transferred to the control of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Good News Church in Slavyansk is one notable example of a church that was seized by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region. In April 2014, several separatists entered the church and forced the congregation to lie on the ground while they searched for pro-Western materials. Some days later, they confiscated the church, its rehabilitation center, and its orphanage to convert them to military facilities. While the church was reopened after the Ukrainian Army regained control of Slavyansk, the majority of the churches seized in eastern Ukraine remain under separatist control.

Overall, the pro-Russian separatists are persecuting Christians in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions who do not belong to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, or who they suspect of being pro-Western. By persecuting these Christians, the separatists are allowing greater Russian dominance in eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, hundreds of Christians suffered religious persecution at the hands of the Russian government in Crimea and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, more than 100 churches, Christian missions, orphanages, rehabilitation centers, educational institutions, research centers, and charities were confiscated or closed in these regions. Today, tens of thousands of Christians, as well as other religious minorities, in Crimea and eastern Ukraine live in fear of being kidnapped, tortured, or killed.

Political and religious leaders from Russia and Ukraine have been holding meetings targeted at achieving peace in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and while the Russian government continues to pursue its own objectives in Ukraine, it is essential that these meetings continue. The February 15, 2015 ceasefire is an opportunity for peace and increased religious freedom in Ukraine, so long as Russia adheres to the agreement.

*Mission Eurasia’s full report on reported cases of religious persecution is available here for your review:


Special Roundtable in Washington DC

This week Mission Eurasia hosted a roundtable/consultation on religious persecution in occupied territories of Ukraine in partnership with the International Religious Freedom Roundtable (USA). The roundtable took place in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the National Prayer Breakfast.
The goal of the roundtable was to raise awareness about increasing religious persecution in Eastern Ukraine, and to mobilize Congressmen and the global Christian community to support and advocate on behalf of those who are suffering for their faith in Eastern Ukraine.

Special reports were presented by evangelical leaders from Kiev and eastern Ukraine as well as other experts. Attendees included U.S. government departments and committees such as the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations, the Helsinki Committee, the Senate Human Rights Caucus, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the USCIRF, the U.S. Department of State, and the International Religious Freedom Caucus and numerous NGOs. Office of Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) sponsored this event.

"In the broader context of discussions, the talk is not so much about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia but also about conflict between Eurasia and Europe, Russia and the West, the orthodox "Russian world" and "secularized Protestant-Catholic civilization," universal human rights and "orthodox" values, between freedom and "traditional order." - stated Dr. Michael Cherenkov, the VP of Association of the Spiritual Renewal, Kiev.

"Separatists began to pick out church buildings and intimidate believers in Slavyansk, while it was under their control. One day they forced their way into our building, had everyone lie on the floor, including women and children, and searched the whole facility attempting to find some damaging information. After some time, our church building, rehabilitation center and the building housing the orphans were confiscated and turned into military facilities. In the same way, the premises of other religious communities in the city were confiscated. Bishop Alexey Demidovich was arrested as well as employees and ministers at the Church of the Transfiguration. They released the employees after torturing them, but four ministers were executed. Evangelicals, faced with threat of persecution, began to flee the city. Many churches began to hold underground services." - shared pastor of the Good News Church from Slavyansk, Peter Dudnik.

At the end of the discussion it was decided to create a coalition of NGOs and a working group that would continue gathering information about persecution and mobilize governments and people of good will all over the world to practically help those who suffering for their faith. The first meeting of the working group will take place at the end of February. 


Father Gleb Yakunin obituary

Priest in the Russian Orthodox Church who campaigned on human rights issues.

The article is written by Dr. Michael Bourdeaux who is the founder of Keston Institute in the UK, which played a key role in defending religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Dr. Michael Bourdeaux is a patron of Mission Eurasia. 

Incredible as it may seem, there were three times as many churches open in the Soviet Union on the day that Stalin died in 1953 as when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The reason for this was simple: Stalin allowed churches to reopen during the second world war; Nikita Khrushchev systematically closed them between 1959 and 1964. The man who first exposed the enormity of this persecution was Father Gleb Yakunin, who has died aged 80.

In 1965, with a colleague, Father Nikolai Eshliman, he wrote two lengthy and detailed open letters, one to the Soviet government, the other to Patriarch Alexy I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, setting out the nature of the anti-religious campaign in precise detail and furnished with hundreds of examples. They wrote: “The mass closure of churches, a campaign instigated from above, has created an atmosphere of anti-religious fanaticism which has led to the barbaric destruction of a large number of superb and unique works of art.”

These words resounded around the world and undoubtedly persuaded Khrushchev’s successors to discontinue the church closures. Yakunin, however, became an isolated figure. The punishment meted out to him came not from the KGB, but from Patriarch Alexy (doubtless at the state’s instigation): he was commanded to keep silence and not to exercise his priesthood for the next 10 years. The young priest obeyed the injunction to the letter.

Yakunin was born into a Christian family in Moscow. His father was a musician who played the clarinet in a symphony orchestra; his mother worked at the post office. Gleb lost his faith aged 15, but while studying for a degree in biology in Irkutsk, Siberia, he found it again under the influence of Alexander Men, who was to become the foremost theologian of his generation. Their subsequent careers were divergent, yet equally influential. Barred from entry to one of the few functioning seminaries, they took correspondence courses in theology and studied privately. Men served discreetly in a parish and always deflected attention from his teaching ministry, becoming a national figure only during the Gorbachev era and until his murder in 1990; Yakunin early adopted a stance of open defiance to Soviet atheism.


His decade of silence only persuaded Yakunin to speak out more bravely when it ended in 1976. He had noted the signing of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975, which put human rights and religious liberty firmly on the international agenda. The Soviet authorities began systematically to imprison democratic activists, to which Yakunin responded by establishing a Christian Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights. He sent an appeal to the Fifth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met in Nairobi, begging the worldwide ecumenical fellowship to act on behalf of the persecuted church. The African editors of the assembly’s daily newspaper evaded the censorship which the Russian delegates exercised and caused a furore by printing the text of Yakunin’s appeal, only for the organisers to turn their face away from the issue under pressure from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Wrongly thinking that he now had world Christian opinion behind him, Yakunin increased his efforts. His energy was prodigious. He collected more than 400 appeals from almost all Christian denominations in the Soviet Union and even included support for Jews and Muslims in his wide-ranging activities. This time the Soviet authorities themselves acted, and arrested Yakunin on 1 November 1979. At his subsequent trial, he received a sentence of 10 years, the first half to be served in a camp, the second in exile. Eight years into this, with Gorbachev at the height of his perestroika policy, Yakunin was released.

The next year, 1988, saw celebrations marking the millennium of the conversion of the Eastern Slavs. During these June weeks Yakunin and his wife, Iraida, whom he had married in 1961, held open house for religious dissidents, inviting foreign Christian leaders in Moscow for the events to visit his flat and learn the real truth about the persecution of the past 60 years, not the sanitised version as presented by the Moscow Patriarchate. The atmosphere in the flat was electric as a succession of victims of persecution told their stories.

Yakunin at this point might have expected a triumphal reinstatement into the senior ranks of the Russian church, or an award of the Nobel peace prize, but neither was forthcoming. Soon he began to follow a more overtly political line and was elected to the Duma, the parliament, representing the Democratic Russia party. In this role he had brief and restricted access to the state archives. Here he found in the records of the Council for Religious Affairs, the body that controlled the life of the church, incontrovertible evidence that exposed the collaboration of church leaders with the KGB, including that of Patriarch Alexy II, who was in office at the time.

He was not permitted to take photocopies, but made handwritten notes, which he subsequently copied and passed to Jane Ellis, a researcher at Keston College, Kent, who published them in its journal Religion in Communist Lands. This was a bridge too far for the Moscow Patriarchate, which wrought vengeance on Yakunin by defrocking him, on the grounds that clergy were not permitted to stand for election to political office.

As the Moscow Patriarchate regained its leading position in Russian society, Yakunin’s influence declined. He became a priest in the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, later transferring to the True Orthodox Church (which had its origin in the Catacomb Church of the 1930s). He continued to speak out on human rights issues.

Mental toughness predominated in his personal relationships, but he relaxed with friends and, when able to travel in 1989, enjoyed playing truant from a conference in Manila to go white-water rafting.

He is survived by Iraida, and their three children, Maria, Alexander and Anna.

 Gleb Pavlovich Yakunin, priest, born 4 March 1934; died 25 December 2014

Source: The Guardian


The Suburbs of Donetsk

The entrance to the village of Marinka was closed due to the ongoing shelling in the morning, but literally 10 minutes before our arrival the shelling stopped and we were allowed in. The village is completely empty – not a soul on the streets. The doors to the police station are barricaded, and the windows – shattered. The shops, banks and other public institutions have all been abandoned.

We're going somewhere into the depths, in the direction of Donetsk. None of us sitting in the van packed with freshly baked bread really knows in whose territory we are now – Ukrainian or that of the DPR (Donetsk People's Republic). Our escort lost his way. We turn around and head back somewhere or the other. . . . . . Inside the van, the tension increases. Ah, here we are – a village house, remodeled near the local church. We open the rear door of the minivan and begin to unload the bread. As if emerging from the ground, some local residents appear. They take the bread and help us with the unloading. We work as quickly as possible – we do not know where we are and when the attacks will resume.

"Five hundred," Gennady finishes his count. That's it. Off we go again.

We make our way back to the entry to the village and turn the other way, toward the next drop-off point – Krasnogorovka. "Do you see those piles?" asks Galina. "That's where the DNR snipers station themselves, and we're in full view of them for the next kilometer and a half, so this is where we pray especially hard and move forward at full speed."

We pass a Ukrainian checkpoint and drive to Krasnogorovka. The streets are empty. In some high-rise buildings you can see the holes created by falling shells. Broken windows are almost everywhere. We travel to the other edge of the city, and turning off somewhere into a courtyard, we notice a crowd of people. "They are here all day," says Galina. "They are afraid they might miss us. After all, we don't have enough for everybody."

The ground beneath our feet shakes from exploding shells about a mile from us. The locals don't respond to these sounds –they're used to them. They say that during meetings, sometimes the building shakes, and recently a large piece of debris landed on the roof and broke through, but thank God, no one was in the building at the time.

We begin handing out bread. After 10 minutes, everything's been passed out, but people keep coming. To the especially weak and elderly we give some of what we had allotted for the church. Then we unload warm clothes from a truck – these were donated by Christians from Springfield, Massachusetts. "On Saturday we will distribute them to the needy," says Pastor Sergey. One of our cars takes off to the local school to get some tape for the broken windows. Glass is useless – it will again end up shattered, and even though tape isn't very warm, it's more reliable.

There's no heat in the buildings and homes, and we don't expect there will be any this winter. There is water in some places, but more often than not this is only until the first frosts. Electricity has recently been restored, but you can count on ongoing interruptions in power.

The car returns from the school with an old woman and three small children. Their father drowned last year, the mother drank herself to death and was gone, and now the grandmother takes care of her grandchildren. They’re destitute. They lived in the ruins. The school principal and teacher were helping them survive. We take them in and if they agree, we will transport them to a safe place. In spite of everything that is going on around here, many people don't want to leave.

The pastor mentioned the situation in the city.

We must leave before dark so that we don't attract the snipers with our headlights. We're too late. We leave as darkness is descending. 100 meters from the checkpoint, Gennady cuts off the headlights. In the same way, we drove away from the checkpoint in the dark. Up ahead the road is raked by sniper fire. We turn on the headlights and speed through the dangerous stretch.

Two more checkpoints. The sounds from the explosions retreat, then men move closer. We drive on for two hours. Kramatorsk. Slavyansk. We make it back.