On the weekend of 3-5 October 2014, 51 Christians gathered for the 6th annual conference of Central Eurasian Partners (CEP) in Malenovice, Czech Republic.
The conference, held in English, comprised around ten nationalities, including Russian, Ukrainian, American, Slovakian, Polish and from the UK. It was a great source of encouragement as we shared the joys and sorrows of working in areas that are spiritually very sparse.
Many of the mission’s activities are connected to social programmes aimed at demonstrating the love of Christ in largely atheistic, Catholic and Orthodox contexts.
For instance, the concept of doing volunteer work is alien in Romania, and to motivate university students in Ploiesti to help those with physical and mental problems is a huge challenge. But, by getting involved, these students experience the joy of helping others through Christ.
But it soon became clear that what was happening in Ukraine and Russia was in the forefront of everyone’s mind at the conference. So the conference highlight became an impromptu ‘panel’ where we sought to gain a Christian overview, with perspectives from Ukrainian and Russian believers.
We were blessed in having on the panel a director of Mirt Christian Centre, with his wife, from St Petersburg, Russia (Roman and Svetlana Nosach); a Ukrainian pastor from Kiev, with his wife (Sergiy and Iryna Tymchenko); the panel’s moderator, Al Bussard, from Bratislava; Slava Yaroshevych from Ukraine; Neil Lessman from Moscow, and Milan Cicel.
We heard about the background to the conflict. The demonstrations began in Ukraine in December 2013 and were reported in the Western press in February 2014, as confrontations began.
Sergiy says the key motivator for the demonstrations was a sense of betrayal by President Yanukovych, for reneging on his promise to sign an economic accord, negotiated by the Ukrainian parliament with the EU.
The nation was already fed up with living in a corrupt society. Neither the Orange Revolution’s ‘Democrats’ nor the old Soviet guard had acted differently when in power. The general population believed that EU standards and supervision were the only chance of breaking out of corruption. Joining with Russia just promised worse.
The people living in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are children of Russians, resettled there by Stalin after his 1930s purges wiped out the local Ukrainian-speaking population. Yanukovych, although from this minority Russian community, came to power by promising to work with the EU. The electorate were disillusioned with the ‘Democratic’ leaders.
In February, as Sergiy and his wife were walking near the central (Maidan) square in Kiev, Sergiy was ‘seconded’ by students into being their ‘pastor’. He remained there for 17 days, working from a prayer tent organised by Christian students.
The demonstrations were peaceful for the first two weeks. During this time, thousands of Scriptures were read and there was a huge, almost non-stop prayer effort. It was said that more attention was paid to preachers than politicians. Shooting by snipers began on 20 February when around 100 people were killed.
Sergiy says that life at Maidan with the protesters was a spiritual experience. Every day began with prayer. People of all ages and backgrounds demonstrated love for each other in acts of caring. The experience built a sense of unity and cooperation that few had experienced before and that went beyond national patriotism.
Iryna said that, as the violence in Maidan increased, thousands had to make a personal decision whether to stay in the square and risk death. People were afraid, but remained.
On the critical night when police attempted to clear the square, residents in Kiev were up late watching the only channel still broadcasting news. After the call went round to come to the square, men quickly ran out of their apartments. Even though it was 2.00-3.00am, they found taxi drivers were ready and willing to drive them to Maidan for free.
During the panel discussion the Russian perspective was also shared. Roman said that reactions among believers to the conflict differed according to age, with different age-groups having had different experiences of the Russian government and media.
Older believers (45+) recognise that what they are hearing in the Russian media is similar to the Soviet propaganda they grew up with. They have friends in Ukraine and know what they’re being fed isn’t true.
The media tells a one-sided story of Russian national interests being opposed by enemies in the West trying to stop the Russian people from exercising their legitimate rights to economic growth and protection.
Most middle-aged believers (30-45) are split between a feeling of rising patriotism that their country is now strong enough to stand up to the West, and uneasiness that what they are hearing may not be true. The rest of this group are confused because what the media says doesn’t seem to fit with what they personally know about Ukraine or have heard from their parents.
Younger believers are easily moved to either accept the picture presented in the media or are too disinterested to form any opinion at all. They do not seem to realise when the media has lied to them.
Persecution and refugees
Meanwhile, in the Crimean conflict zone, pastors have been assassinated for taking a neutral humanitarian stance offering aid to all regardless of whom they support. Christians assisting the injured or needy from the other side were put in jail.
Spiritual hunger is heightened. Churches that, last year, had basements full of New Testaments which no one wanted have completely used up their stocks. Some specially designed New Testaments, with inserts for those going into battle, are being handed out to soldiers.
Western Ukrainians have taken in refugees from the war zone. Since there are many churches in the west, these are at the forefront of helping the refugees. These people had to flee when the banks closed, electricity failed and their homes were severely damaged.
Integrating people, especially children, from Eastern Ukraine is proving a huge challenge, since the hatred of east towards west (and vice-versa) is ingrained in the cultures.
Some Western Ukrainian pastors have volunteered to serve with the military as counsellors, since the army has no positions for chaplains. Their duties include praying with soldiers, visiting the wounded and those showing post-traumatic stress.
Everyone knows the coming winter will be very cold, with extremely low supplies of gas for heating. Schools have told parents they will be closed for the two coldest months of the winter. But Christians are making plans to offer local children alternatives that include activities and Bible lessons.
The panel concluded with these observations. Any strategy that depends on lies will in the end be defeated by the truth. Christians should be passionate about seeking the truth, since our Saviour is the truth as well as the life. The fog of confusion is a satanic weapon.
We must not confuse a personal desire for revenge with justice; we are not to return evil for evil.
We must be clear who the real enemy is. The abusive, corrupt, cruel centrist system that is built on lies is the enemy. Behind it stands Satan, the father of lies. Ever since the changes of the late 1980s, the old bureaucracies morphed into the corrupt power structures of today.
Evangelicals must stand for truth. Please pray too for Christians across Ukraine facing the rigours of winter and a volatile economic and political situation.
The author was a missionary in Moscow. This report is by courtesy of Central Eurasian Partners UK. If you wish to support CEP’s work in Ukraine, please contact Graham Hilton (tel. 07769 935 869).