Alexei Navalny

Into the third year of Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine, Christian leaders are still being killed, tortured and disappeared. And in Russia, priests who oppose Putin’s invasion continue to be imprisoned or silenced.

‘As President Putin begins his fifth term our partners describe growing pressure on the Church,’ says Paul Robinson, CEO of UK-based Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide.

‘And yet,’ he says, ‘in the face of fear, insecurity and oppression, hunger for the gospel is growing. We hear reports of churches packed to overflowing and many giving their lives to Christ.’

Tortured and killed

In February, the body of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was found in the streets of Kalanchak in Russian-occupied Kherson. He was 59-yr-old Stepan Podolchak. According to his bishop, Russian military forces had ‘tortured Fr Stephan to death’.

He’s not the first Christian leader to be dragged away and dispatched by the occupying forces.

Fr Stepan Podolchak was seized on February 13 and hauled away barefoot with a bag over his head, according to Norway-based human rights organisation Forum 18. His bruised body was found lifeless in the street two days later.

Some reports say he had been shot in the head. But the official cause of death was given as a heart attack.

The Kyiv-based Centre for Journalistic Investigations told Forum 18, ‘He prayed for Ukraine, even under occupation. Apparently because of this the Russians took away his life.’

It’s believed he was taken by operatives of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Centre for Countering Extremism. Increasingly, denominations other than President Putin’s Russian Orthodox are being regarded as extremists. 

Along with other priests, Fr Podolchak had been pressured to desert the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and join the Moscow Patriachate. 

Despite the danger, Fr Podolchak refused to flee to safety and chose to remain with his congregation under Russian occupation. ‘He told them he couldn’t betray his oath and his community,’ civil society activist Serhy Danilov told Forum 18.

Svitlana Fomina, an exiled member of the Ukrainian administration, described Fr Podolchak as ‘like an angel who came down to earth, faithful to God, pure in soul, honest and just’.


Other church leaders have suffered the same fate.

In November 2023, Pentecostal deacon Anatoly Prokopchuk and his 19-yr-old son Aleksandr were kidnapped and shot in Kherson. Their mutilated bodies were found four days later in woodland.

According to Forum 18, ‘Russian occupation forces have also kidnapped, tortured, and killed other Ukrainian religious leaders since the Russian invasion.’ Others have disappeared or been deported to Russia, some after refusing to accept Russian citizenship.

United Nations Special Rapporteurs have stated in writing to the Russian authorities their ‘serious concern for the alleged enforced disappearances and torture… of clergy in the occupied territories’. But the Russian authorities have declined to answer.

And in Russia, other Christians have been jailed for refusing to take the Putin line. 

Christian dissidents

One former Russian Orthodox priest, now effectively in exile in Holland, raises funds for clergy who have been kicked out of the church for opposing the war. Andrey Kordochkin told Religion Unplugged that 300 priests had signed a petition condemning Putin’s invasion.

The rising persecution in Russia and the occupied territories has been flagged up by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Their latest report concludes that freedom of faith is continuing to decline sharply across the Russian Federation and occupied Ukraine, as a plethora of new laws target Protestant, Catholic, and other groups.

And affiliates of Release International working in the region warn their findings ‘only scratch the surface’.

Among examples of this clampdown on Christianity, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has highlighted: 

  • Two landmark court cases in Chukota, where individual Christians have been fined for giving out Bibles and Christian books, defining the distributions as illegal church recruitment. These marked the first occasions a court has declared it illegal for an individual to give away Christian literature. It represents a new level of restriction on personal evangelism.
  • A Christian in Armavir, Russia, who was fined for distributing the Christian newspaper, Do you believe?
  • A Moscow pastor who was jailed for 12 days for taking humanitarian aid to Christians in Luhansk.
  • A Christian in Arkhangelsk, Russia, who was jailed for two years for trying to save a church from being demolished.

RI affiliate Dr Hyun Sook Foley says, ‘No matter what the Russian government does, these ordinary Christians simply continue their service to the Lord.

‘Far more common – and far more concerning – are the less well-known cases where ordinary Russian Christians who are doing ordinary Christian activities end up fined or imprisoned.’

Churches closing

In areas of Crimea and Ukraine taken over by Russia since 2014, many religious groups have faced increased persecution under military rule. Churches forcibly closed include those of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Baptists, and Greek Catholics. Churches are being required to apply for registration under Russian law.

When the Russian military seized Zaporizhia Baptist Church, they removed all the communion vessels. And Russian-controlled TV ran a report on the ‘disgusting sects’ they found in the region. The congregation responded by praying for their oppressors. 

In the Eastern Ukraine town of Balaklija, Russian troops arrested Pastor Alexander Salfetnikov of the Light of the Gospel Church and almost tortured him to death. 

The Russian-appointed city mayor went into the chapel and declared: ‘There will be no God here. There will be no Christians. Only the Moscow Orthodox Church.’ The occupiers looted the building before confiscating it.

Hunger for the gospel

Despite the growing oppression, God is at work in the conflict to turn hearts towards him. There is a hunger in Ukraine for the gospel. 

After being taken and tortured in Kherson Pastor Alexander Salfetnikov managed to escape with his wife to an area under Ukrainian control. Most of the congregation also fled.

Release International’s sister organisation visited Pastor Alexander at his new church. It was filled to capacity with more than 300 people. ‘The vast majority were non-believers. Thirty came forward to trust their lives to God.’ Later that day, the same number responded to the gospel message of salvation at a church in a village nearby.

Another church in Kherson was also filled to overflowing. Those unable to get seats gather outside in the yard, hungry for hope. Release International’s associate says: ‘People flock to the word of God and convert to Christ, in whom they find their only hope in the conflagration of war.’

Alexei Navalny

That hunger for God is reflected in the story of Alexei Navalny, the well-known dissident, who reportedly turned to Christ while in prison in Russia. 

Navalny, who many believe was murdered for opposing President Putin, was a late convert to Christianity. 

The 47-year-old stated in court: ‘The fact is, I am a Christian. I was once quite a militant atheist.’ He went on to quote from the Bible, referencing the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’

Navalny had previously been an avowed atheist who publicly mocked religion. In his final days, he said it was he who was now being mocked by militant atheists. 

He declared on social media and in court that he had found faith. Sergey Rakhuba, who leads Mission Eurasia, told CBN News: ‘When he had to go through all the challenges in fighting for his life, he said he found God. He was in communication with leaders in the evangelical community.’

Search for purpose

‘In our work with persecuted Christians we find time and again that oppression concentrates the mind and cause people to think deeply about the meaning of their lives,’ says Paul Robinson of Release International.  

‘When everything else is stripped away, people face up to the really important questions: “Why am I here? And what is my purpose?” 

‘While persecution is a terrible thing, we find that God is powerfully present to restore hope and meaning. Our partners are working in Ukraine to serve a Church which is being refined by fire – and where the gospel is preached, that Church is growing.’

Release International is active in some 30 countries. It works through partners to provide prayerful, pastoral, and practical support for the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families, Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.