Pro-Russian forces have been closing churches and arresting pastors in occupied Ukraine.
Occupying forces have closed down the three largest evangelical Protestant churches in Melitopol and shut down churches in Mariupol. In another raid, pro-Russian soldiers reportedly claimed that only one faith would be tolerated – Orthodoxy.
Russian troops raided Grace Baptist Church in Melitopol while a worship service was underway, shut it down and ordered the pastor to leave the city.
UK-based Release International works with partners to support the persecuted Church worldwide. Sister organisation Voice of the Martyrs Korea is in contact with Christians in the region.
Hyun Sook Foley described the raid on Grace Baptist Church on September 11: ‘They entered the sanctuary while the congregation was singing a hymn, halted the worship service, registered the names of all present and detained several ministers.’ She says the occupiers also gave the pastor Mikhail Brisyn just 48 hours to get out of the city.
Grace Baptist Church worship service was being broadcast live when the troops moved in. Viewers watched online as soldiers halted the service. That video has since been removed from the Internet.
The previous month occupation forces shut down Melitopol’s largest Protestant church. Melitopol Christian Church is described as charismatic and known for its 1,000-seat auditorium, substantial campus, palm trees and fountain.
Release International associates say occupation forces tore down its cross and have turned the building into a ‘cultural sports entertainment complex’. That same month, they also closed Melitopol’s Word of Life Church.
In the nearby village of Chkalovo, Russian Federation soldiers entered a church, broke up the evening service and shut the church down.
According to reports, they told the congregation: ‘Your feet will not be here after the referendum. We have only one faith: Orthodoxy.’ The church in Chkalovo has held worship services in the village every day since the war began. It was shut down on September 21.
Release International associates say the confiscation of church buildings and the detention of pastors is also underway in other Russian-occupied cities including Mariupol.
At Kurchatov Church in Mariupol, armed soldiers with their faces hidden by masks detained Baptist Pastor Leonid Ponomaryov and his wife Tatyana. They raided their home on the evening of September 21.
Neighbours reported hearing groans and cries as the pastor and his wife were taken away. No word was given to the family and church members of why or where they were being held.
Oslo-based Forum 18 say Russian officials have claimed the Ponomaryovs were involved in ‘extremist activity’. After searching their Baptist Church occupying forces sealed it to prevent future worship meetings.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The city was occupied by Russian troops and pro-Russian forces of the so-called Donetsk Peoples Republic in May 2022 and illegally annexed on October 5.
According to Forum 18, forces searched and sealed off places of worship, arrested religious leaders, and expelled church members. They also insisted that church leaders cut ties with Ukrainian religious bodies. Similar actions have been carried out in other occupied regions of Ukraine.
In the Luhansk region, Russian troops and separatists captured the city of Lysychansk in July. Local residents told them where the Christians were living, and leaders of the six Protestant churches were forced to flee. Remaining congregation members were driven underground.
Forces seized the Lysychansk Christian Centre and gutted the entire church library, tossing all the bibles and children’s books into a pile in the neighbouring yard.
At risk to themselves, Christian women who remained in the city have recovered the books and taken them to a place of safety, in the hope that they can be restored to the church in the future.
Says Release International associate Hyun Sook Foley: ‘To gradually remove books day after day from the yard involved the risk of being identified as a Christian by occupation authorities who have been detaining and questioning Christians.’
According to Radio Free Europe, some 80 per cent of Lysychansk’s 100,000 residents have now fled. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has described Luhansk, along with neighbouring Severodonetsk as ‘dead cities’.
The United Nations has condemned Russia’s occupying forces for ‘violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief.’ Christians, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have all been targeted, along with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is independent from Russian control.
In July, the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church paid a visit to the UK to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Justin Welby said he had heard ‘the most heart breaking stories of atrocities against civilians and against Orthodox clergy in occupied territory’.
UK-based Release International works with partners to support persecuted Christians around the world. Says CEO Paul Robinson: ‘It’s no surprise that the Russian occupying forces are closing Protestant churches and detaining pastors. They’ve been doing the same since they seized and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. This has set the pattern for what has followed.
‘In Crimea and other occupied territories, they have raided places of worship, closed churches, banned missionary activity, fined people for leading worship meetings, seized religious literature and forced religious communities to re-register with the state, refusing re-registration to the vast majority. And now we are seeing churches raided, sealed and shut down, and the disappearance and detention of pastors in the occupied areas.
‘Ukrainian Christians have been here before. They are begin driven back to the underground churches of the Soviet era. Yet the message of history should be clear to Russia: the Christian faith has survived 70 years of Soviet totalitarian rule, and it thrives today in China under similar conditions. Persecution can only strengthen the church.’
Release International is active in some 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families. It also supports Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.