The conflict is complicated and has no doubt meant challenges for citizens—and believers—in Ukraine, Russia and across the region, particularly in places where Russia maintains significant influence.
That’s because Russia has its own issues with persecution against Christians.
Russia has appeared on Open Doors’ World Watch List (most recently on the 2020 list) in the past and remains on the Persecution Watch List of countries just outside of the top 50. Most of the worst persecution in Russia stems from localized pressure and violence against believers in Muslim-majority regions. Christians in regions like Chechnya, Dagestan experience pressure from community and local leaders who seek to ensure dominance of Islam.
But a series of laws were instituted in 2016 across the country and have been used to prosecute groups active in evangelization. While these laws have primarily been used to persecute religions like Jehovah’s Witness and Scientology, some Protestants—including evangelical and Pentecostal groups—have also come under fire.
We’ve already seen some of these 2016 laws come into play in parts of Ukraine governed by separatist groups supported by Russia. The U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that, “in Russian-occupied Crimea, the occupation authorities continued to enforce Russia’s repressive laws and policies on religion, which has resulted in the prosecution of peaceful religious activity and bans on groups that were legal in Crimea under Ukrainian law.” In fact, USCIRF even recommended that Russia be placed on the State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern.”
Russia’s support of breakaway regions is also troubling for Christians in Ukraine. Two of the parts of Ukraine that have declared themselves independent, Luhansk People’s Republic and Donestk People’s Republic, have imposed rules requiring religious organizations to register. Complying with the rule has extremely difficult for many Protestant churches. For instance, a December 2019 list of 195 registered religious organizations by the Luhansk authorities showed that no permission had been granted to any Protestant community.
In June last year, three Protestant churches were banned by authorities in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and others had their buildings confiscated. In August, books by Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham were placed on a list of banned “extremist” literature by a court in the Luhansk People’s Republic.
When Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, the churches in the western part began preparing themselves, the president of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary, Yarsolav “Slavik” Pyzh, told Christianity Today. “Churches already agreed,” he said at the beginning of the war. “Those that are on the western part of Ukraine … told our brothers and sisters in other parts of Ukraine [that] if something happens, we will open our homes and our churches to you.”
Pyzh also said Baptist churches in eastern Ukraine would go underground if Russia decides and succeeds in taking control of that part of the country. “You have to understand that historically we had that experience before under the Soviet Union,” he told CT. “So the church did not forget what does it mean to be persecuted, and I think that we will rearrange, reorganize and still do what we always do, still preach the gospel.”
That’s what Open Doors has always believed—no matter what wars, conflict or persecution brings, the gospel will go on. And part of our role is to pray. Our brothers and sisters in Russia and Ukraine need us to stand with them as this new conflict begins. Here’s how you can pray with your family in these places:
- Pray for peace. Pray for violence and tension to end, and that leaders on all sides would pursue diplomacy and peace in a way that allows people of all faiths to live in freedom and peace.
- Pray for believers in Ukraine and Russia, to build bridges of love and hope that would transcend any conflict between their countries. Ask that God would work to overcome divisions and that His power would be visible to all.
- Ask that God would open the hearts of leaders in Russia and in areas of Ukraine under Russian control, that they would not restrict the ability of believers to worship God freely.
- When war happens, so many innocent lives are upended and affected. Pray for those who have lost loved ones and are in the path of the military. Pray that peace would break out anew in this part of the world.
- Pray that God would work through the diplomacy of countries around the world, and that His peace would prevail.
Top photo taken in the disputed territory of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, at which time the photo was taken. The photo was taken by Google Picasa user ВО «Свобода» and licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 license.