Russia’s War Against Evangelicals

8 minute read
Pomerantsev's new book is How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler. He is also the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He is a Senior Fellow at SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University.

After they beat Azat Azatyan so bad blood came out of his ears; after they sent electric shocks up his genitals; after they wacked him with pipes and truncheons, the Russians began to interrogate him about his faith. “When did you become a Baptist? When did you become an American spy?” Azat tried to explain that in Ukraine there was freedom of religion, you could just choose your faith. But his torturers saw the world the same way as their predecessors at the KGB did: an American church is just a front for the American state.

Azat was dragged back to the makeshift cell in the occupied city of Berdiansk, in southern Ukraine, where he was held with six others in a cellar that had a bucket for a toilet and hard mattresses on the floor. The other inmates wondered how he could be religious when the punishments meted out to him were so much worse than to them. Azat answered he felt God was always with him. He prayed for the other inmates to be spared. When the torturers returned they left the others alone but told him to come with them: “This time we will kill you.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is accompanied with a strategic effort to repress, control, and crush religious groups outside of the Kremlin controlled Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church. There are over thirty cases of religious clergy killed and kidnapped. 109 known cases of interrogations, forced expulsions, imprisonments, arrests. 600 houses of worship destroyed. And these are just the confirmed numbers, with the real ones in information blackout of the occupied territories will much likely be higher.

Evangelicals are targeted by the Russians disproportionally, and Azat’s story is typical for Russia’s systemic persecution of Protestants in occupied Ukraine. Protestants were the victims of 34 percent of the reported persecution events, and 48 percent in the Zaporizhzhia region where Azat was held. Baptists made up 13 percent of victims – the largest single group after Ukrainian Orthodox. Under Russian control 400 Baptist congregations have been lost, 17% of the total in Ukraine.   

There’s a reason for this. Protestants flourished in the democratic decades since the end of the U.S.S.R. Baptists are the third largest denomination in Ukraine. The mayor of Kyiv between 2006-2012 was an evangelical. And for the Russian occupiers they are perceived as agents of America.

Petro Dudnyk, Pastor of the Good News Church, explains that the occupying forces "thought and spoke like this: you are the American faith, the Americans are our enemies, the enemies must be destroyed." Inside Russia Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, as is missionary work for Mormons. Evangelical groups are constrained by laws banning missionary activity and labelling some groups as “undesirable organizations.” The U.S. Congress Commission on International Religious Freedom considers Russia as one of the world’s “worst violators” of religious freedom, on par with Iran and Pakistan.

What this persecution highlights is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is more than just the latest iteration of the Kremlin’s centuries old attempt to crush Ukraine’s freedom. It is also part of the Kremlin’s larger war against America. By hurting those who practice an “American” religion the Kremlin can claim it is striking against American power—while picking on the powerless.

The Russian persecution of Protestants is pursued through intimidation, expropriation, enforced conversion, and even murder.  

"Your church has no right to exist, as it has connections with America and other Western countries," Russian authorities told the deacon of the Pentecostal church in Nova Kakhovka, Oleksandr Prokopchuk. They arrested him and his 19-year-old son. Both were later found dead in a forest. In occupied Sloviansk four members of the Evangelical Church of the Transformation were accused of being American spies because some U.S. dollars were found in their pockets. They were subsequently shot and killed.

But it’s not just individual clergy Russian forces go after, sometimes it’s whole congregations. As soon as Russia take over a city armed men turn up during prayers. The investigative news outlet, The Counter-Offensive, has reported on the fate of an Adventist congregation in Donetsk, where, the pastor explains, “every week or two there were searches. People would come with machine guns. Sometimes a tank would come. …they said, 'You are Americans, this is an American church, this is not [a Russian] church. We were treated like dogs. They beat us. Some were killed. Some disappeared."

When Russian occupying forces shut down the Melitopol Christian Church, they used sledge hammers to break into the building. Members were interrogated as to whether the church was hiding any Americans. The house of worship was expropriated and given to a Russian Ministry. Its fifty foot cross was chopped down. Click here for video.

Sometimes the Russians also try to “cure” protestants. Viktor Cherniiavskyi, was held for 25 days, beaten with a baseball bat and given electro-shocks. A Russian Orthodox priest was present in this process, and tried to cast demons out of him for being an evangelical Christian. The torturers used a taser to help the exorcism along.

The way the priest and the torturer worked together is emblematic of the interconnection between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarch, Kirill, who was reportedly a KGB agent in the 1970s, has vociferously supported the invasion of Ukraine, openly backs the destruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty and promises Russian soldiers their sins will be washed away. When Russian forces accuse evangelicals of being agents of the U.S. they are projecting how the Moscow patriarchate aids and abets Putin. The tradition of priests working for spy agencies continues with Orthodox priests in Ukraine who report to the Moscow Patriarch have also been found guilty of reporting directly to the Russian security services.

Only 4% of Ukrainians Patriarch remain faithful to Kirill’s Moscow Patriarchate—the vast majority have moved to the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate.  Moreover 85% of Ukrainians think that the Moscow branch of the Orthodox Church is a security threat. The Ukrainian Parliament is considering a bill that would prohibit religious organisations that are controlled from a country waging armed aggression against Ukraine. Steven Moore, a former Republican strategist who now runs a center documenting religious crimes in Ukraine, compares the approach to the struggle to legislate against TikTok in the US. According to Moore “Congress wants to ban TikTok unless it gets new ownership. The parliament of Ukraine has drafted a bill to close individual churches affiliated with Russia unless they find ‘new ownership’ and renounce the Russian affiliation.”

But such nuance is lost on some lawmakers and media in America, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson, who accuse the Ukrainian government of attacking religious freedom. It’s a twisted situation thinks Moore: while Russia literally murders and tortures Protestants, Ukraine is attacked for trying to find a balance between religious freedom and security.

When I asked Azat about Americans who think Russia a bastion of Christianity while Ukraine persecutes Christians he shook his head in bemusement: “The Russians have come here to kill and oppress—that is against God’s law, let alone human law.”

Altogether Azat spent 43 days in captivity. I asked him how his faith had helped him through the ordeal. He described one moment in particular. After a night of torture so bad he couldn’t walk any more. He lay on the floor of his cell, desperate for water. But there was none in the cell. At that moment it began to rain—a rare occurrence in the stifling summer of Berdyansk. Azat managed to rip a plastic tube from the wall and use it to funnel water from the narrow basement window. As he drank it in it felt like God had answered his prayer.

When we spoke Azat was in Zaporizhzhia, where he now works as a Baptist Children's Pastor and founded a children’s centre, Garne Misce. Zaporizhzhia is near the front lines, and is under constant bombardment from Russia, partly due to stalled military support for Ukraine. For the moment the children have warm, bright rooms for study and play.

I asked Azat what life was like for Baptists still inside the occupied territories. Some, he said, meet in secret, in peoples’ apartments. This is how the evangelical movement first developed in the Soviet Union. Other get the ‘choice’: they can keep their congregations if they collaborate and give speeches praising Putin, supporting the invasion. “That’s what the Kremlin fears about Protestants- we follow God’s law, not theirs. But they want to have everything under their control.”

This story is supported with testimony from The Reckoning Project

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