There are warnings that Christians in Ukraine could face persecution if Russia tightens its grip on the country. Release International is assisting partners in Poland working with churches to care for Ukrainian refugees and is appealing to help Christians in flight around the world.
‘There is no doubt that wherever Putin has established his power the persecution of Christians has increased substantially,’ says the Polish partner of Release International, which supports Christians suffering persecution in some 30 countries.
In areas of Ukraine under Russian separatist control, the authorities have closed many Protestant churches and have banned Christian books, including the Gospel of John. Release International warns religious freedom could be a casualty of war if Russian forces gain control.
‘No safe place’
‘Pavel’, Release International’s partner in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, said: ‘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.’
‘These are dark days,’ adds Paul Robinson, ‘not only for the Ukrainian people, but for religious freedom. They need our prayers.
‘Freedom of Christian worship has been severely curtailed in areas previously under Russian control. This is likely to get worse if Russia tightens its grip.’
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 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 states. Protestant Christians have been most affected.
Norway-based Forum 18 says freedom of religion and belief has been severely restricted in rebel-held regions. 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’, says 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.
John’s Gospel banned
Along with the closing of churches, the Russian-backed authorities in Luhansk have banned a number of Christian books as ‘extremist’. These include an 1820 edition of the Gospel of John.
The 12 banned titles include a Baptist hymnbook and books by Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham. The Justice Ministry has 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) has restricted all Ukrainian Baptist Union communities. Forum 18 reports 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.
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.
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 was granted official 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 Baptists say they will 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.’
‘This is what Christians have been facing in areas that came under Russian control before the current conflict. Release International is concerned that persecution could spread if Russia tightens its grip on Ukraine,’ says Paul Robinson.
Release International’s sister organisations have been providing Bibles for Ukraine, including the Russian-separatist areas.
Faith under fire
Remarkable stories of faith under fire have been emerging. Another international partner of Release posted on Twitter: ‘Ukrainian churches are evangelising in bomb shelters and residential areas.’ As one reads from Psalm 91, there is an explosion nearby. Even as the reverberations continue, he keeps on reading: “You will not fear the terror of night, not the arrow that flies by day.”’
Footage of that has been posted on Facebook here
Victoria, a Ukrainian Christian, asks for prayer to help her forgive the Russian soldiers: ‘May God touch the hearts of the soldiers, they too need salvation. It is very difficult for us; we struggle with feelings of hatred towards them [but] we try to forgive them.’
‘Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine,’ adds Paul Robinson of Release International. ‘Pray for courage, protection and wisdom whether to stay or to leave. Release has been in touch with our partners who thank us for our prayers and support and say they are staying put.
‘In the words of our partner ‘Pavel’ in Ukraine: “Our hope is in the Lord. In his patronage and protection we hope.”
Some 3m people have now fled Ukraine, with most heading across the border into Poland. Release International is assisting its sister mission there working with churches to help those who have fled. And the charity is appealing for support for the growing number of Christian refugees around the world.
‘Our hearts bleed when we think of Ukraine,’ says Release International CEO, Paul Robinson. ‘Our support for these frightened people who have been driven from their homes is part of our wider programme to help Christian refugees.
‘In countries such as Nigeria and Eritrea, Christians have been targeted because of their faith and have had to flee. Increasing numbers of Christians worldwide are becoming refugees. Please support our appeal to help Christians in flight around the world. It could be all too easy to overlook them while our eyes are understandably on Ukraine. Thank you.’
Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families, as well as Christians suffering oppression and violence, and Christians forced to flee.