As the conflict between East and West rages in Ukraine, the country’s Christians have become scapegoats in a political war. Last week, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the pro-Russian self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, said that he “will savagely fight the sects and pseudo-religions” of anyone outside of the four confessions that he considers legitimate: Russian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam. This could effectively make Protestant Christianity illegal in the region. Meanwhile, in Western Ukraine, Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church are being attacked simply because of its political ties in a region where many lean towards greater European integration.
In Kiev, western Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment has escalated in recent years, 19 Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) buildings were seized and many Russian Orthodox priests have been forced to leave the region. Most of the attacks against churches, some of them burnt to ashes, took place on Orthodox holy days.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) divided from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) after Ukrainian independence in 1992 and is not recognised by the Moscow Patriarchate.
In eastern Ukraine, 12 church buildings, a church orphanage, a Christian university, and three Christian-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres have been seized by militants and new political leaders; five more church premises have been attacked or burned. Once seized, these church premises are then used by the militants as headquarters, ammunition dumps and accommodation for fighters. Some church buildings have been forced to close, and some congregations are meeting secretly in private homes.
Convinced that the church is “an island of light and hope” in this conflict-ravaged region, most eastern Ukrainian church leaders choose to stay. The cost, however, is high. At least seven church leaders, from across the denominations, have been killed, and 40 more were kidnapped, beaten and questioned. Many have had their cars, money, documents and possessions taken. Barnabas Fund is currently supporting ten persecuted pastors and their families.
Pro-Russian DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko has revealed that a committee is currently working on a new religion law that will apparently clamp down on Christian denominations outside of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. Once ready, he has determined to sign it. Zakharchenko is the leader of the DPR, a self-proclaimed state which is supported by Russia, but has not been recognised by most of the international community.
Officially the border between Ukraine and the DPR is closed to the traffic of people and trade, although some still manages to get through. Within the borders of the DPR, there are extreme shortages of everything. Barnabas Fund is helping needy Christians with food and coal.
Protestant churches are considered to be pro-European. The pro-Russian rebels have accused Protestant Christians of being linked to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) protests against President Yanukovych that began towards the end of 2013 and sparked the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
Angered by the President’s reticence towards further European integration, crowds of protestors gathered at the Maidan until Yanukovych was ousted from his position and fled to Russia in February 2014.
Pawns in this political war, Christians from across the denominations across Ukraine are suffering needlessly at the hands of those who are determined to persecute them to make a political point.