Christians around the world are watching to see what a Baptist preacher will now do, as the Ukrainian crisis intensifies after Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea.
On Twitter, Facebook, blogs and web forums, Christians from all denominations and all countries have been expressing their support and prayers for Oleksandr Turchynov, the politician and Baptist elder who has become the president of, currently, the most-watched nation on earth.
Until 2014, Mr Turchynov would have been described as the right-hand man of former leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been imprisoned by the ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych. Mr Turchynov was also known as a man who penned novels, pursued a political career and serves as an elder in the Word of Life Centre, Kiev. The church is a member of the Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine (EBUU).
After the massive demonstrations and riots earlier this year that saw the removal of Mr Yanukovych, Mr Turchynov was sworn in as speaker and interim president.
The whole drama sparked a pro-Yanukovych uprising among largely ethnic Russian Ukrainians, especially in Crimea and the east of Ukraine,and forced Mr Turchynov to come face to face with Vladimir Putin, president of Russia.
But it was the new president’s faith that captured a lot of media attention. On 27 February, Dr Sebastian Fath, a historian specialising in evangelical Protestantism at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, was one of the first to tweet the Baptist credentials of Mr Turchynov.
Similar messages from people across Europe and the Atlantic emerged, sparking stories from national newspapers and religious publications, such as the Baptist Press News, about the appointment.
Many tweets and Facebook messages announced that Christians around the world were praying for the interim president, as people the world over marvelled that a Christian, from a minority of just three per cent Evangelicals in the country, could be raised up ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14).
Given God’s well-documented pattern of raising up unlikely men and women to take the lead — Moses, Gideon, the shepherd boy David, Queen Esther, an itinerant tinker, a Northamptonshire-based cobbler, a London parlour-maid — perhaps it is not that surprising that God should raise up a nonconformist preacher to stand against Russia, with its overkill nuclear capacity and well equipped army!
Some comments have suggested that Mr Turchynov’s Christian beliefs have been instrumental in the restraint and the resolve that he has shown, in equal measure.
Without doubt we witnessed his Ukrainian armed forces in Crimea stand resolute, yet without retaliation, when they were blockaded in their bases for weeks, by unidentified pro-Russian militia and Russian troops. Now, at the time of writing, there has been a further dangerous military escalation, this time with a loss of life.
Certainly there is a religious undercurrent. Ukraine has a rich Christian heritage. In the late 16th century, the Reformation swept through that part of Europe, only to be dampened out by the Counter-Reformation and centuries of war, division and politics.
In the 1920s, Canadian missionaries rekindled the fires — before the spread of Communism. Although Ukraine is largely Orthodox, figures from Operation World show that there are roughly 1.7 million Evangelicals. And, while that Christian majority is shrinking slightly, the evangelical church there is growing.
However, while these are just small sparks of light in the present spiritual darkness, the evangelical community is clearly visible to the world.
It is not just the high-profile Mr Turchynov who needs prayer, but countless unknown Evangelicals in both Ukraine and Russia who have called out for peace and reconciliation.
As people across the globe watch to see if the situation ends up sparking a third ‘war to end all wars’ — 100 years on from the outbreak of the First World War — believers on both sides have been working to bring about peace.
According to a newsletter from the BMS World Mission, churches in Russia have been preparing and sending Scriptures into Kiev, even during the intense riots at the beginning of the year.
It quoted Dr Gregory Komendant, who said, ‘The situation in Ukraine is extremely tense. Peace is extremely fragile and the church can play a reconciling role on behalf of all Christians in Ukraine. I am calling on the global Christian community for prayer and support at this critical time for our nation’.
His calls for support for the fledgling evangelical church are not without foundation. There have been several instances of trouble within the non-Orthodox community over recent years.
This included controversy surrounding a Nigerian-born ‘prosperity gospel’ preacher who has been subject to several investigations (none of which have been substantiated and which he has attributed to racism) and two instances of unexplained mass food poisoning at an unrelated evangelical church — events in the north-western region of the country, as reported by Radio Free Europe in 2011.
Most recently, the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine has been forced to cancel its training events and conferences due to the political unrest.
Despite the fact that Ukraine stands on the precipice of war, the EBUU issued a statement, which said, ‘A heart that cares for its people does not stand apart from its problems; is able to love and conquer this aggression, hatred, and arbitrary behaviour with love.
‘We will be careful not to cross the boundary, where anger and hostility replace the principles of the gospel’.
The Union has asked the international Christian community to respond. Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), said, ‘We are calling upon our global family to pray for this crisis situation. We would urge all the parties involved to seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict’.
At the moment, Ukraine is the most-watched nation on earth. Its Christian interim president is a key player in this drama, and the voices of evangelical communities in Ukraine and in Russia are starting to be heard across the world.
Perhaps God has prepared this situation, man and country, in a special sense, ‘for such a time as this’? Pray that, whatever the uncertain future in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the unfolding events will lead to the salvation of more souls and to God’s glory.