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Russian pawns

The plight of Eastern Ukraine and its believers

Igor and Inna are homeless, refugees – like a hundred thousand others – of the year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine. But they’re also on a “hit list” for being members of an evangelical church.

Last February, Russia quietly rolled troops into Crimea on the heels of unrest throughout Ukraine. A few months later, pro-Russia militants began grabbing up territory in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, sparking violence with the Ukrainian army. The fighting continued throughout the year, flaring up yet again in the middle of January 2015.

As of February 12, the UN estimates that casualties are 5,700 with 13,961 wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced into Russia and the rest of Ukraine.

One such displaced family is Igor and Inna Bykadorovs and their son Vadym, a football-playing 15-year-old. Originally from the town of Pervomaisk in eastern Ukraine, Igor and Inna never thought they’d have to flee.

“We were naive and careless about real danger for our own lives. The separatists came closer and closer but we believed God would never let it happen in our town,” they recall. 

Even when heavy artillery started shelling their town over the summer, they held out hope for liberation from the Ukrainian army. But after living for weeks in the basement – “half-hungry” – they knew hope was gone. On July 26, when airstrikes began, they fled to a neighbouring town under airstrikes, eventually making their way to a Youth for Christ conference centre right outside Kyiv, where they now live along with 12 other refugee families.

Christians a target
And they will never return home: for when they fled, they were more than just refugees from violence. As Christians, they were targets of separatist persecution.

“Practically all members of our Pervomaisk church are [on] the hit list of separatists,” they explain. All Protestants, all evangelicals, are viewed by the powerful, pro-Russia, Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) as the enemy.

“For years,” Igor and Inna continue, “they were preparing [for] the current war by taking away pro-Ukrainian priests, who also are more friendly to Protestant churches, and then zombie-ing people to hate all except Russia and Russian Orthodox church.”

So when violence broke out, things quickly became dangerous for the 300 members of the Pervomaisk church.

“We were amazed at the ease with which local people turned against us as soon as they felt the support from separatists. They were the same people whom we constantly fed, shared humanitarian aid with . . . but now . . . they got guns and could shoot us as ‘enemies of the people,’” they explain.

Igor and Inna describe their church as close-knit, a family, who could knock on each other’s doors in the middle of night for help if needed. They built their own building over many years – “it became the most beautiful building in the town! – complete with a rehabilitation center, a shelter for the underprivileged and a playground for the whole town to use.” During the shelling, they and others prayed vigorously and not one bomb or shell hit the church building. However, after the separatists took control of the town, it was the locals who “set the church on fire and rejoiced as if was Christmas! . . . Many took smiling pictures in front of the blazing church.”

“It broke our heart,” they conclude. “We have nothing to come back to.”

Ukranians hung out to dry
The Russian propaganda that so swiftly turned the minds of locals in Pervomaisk even separated families as parents and children, sisters and brothers, disagree on whether to support Ukraine or Russia.

“Please read from trustworthy sources,” Igor and Inna urge. “We see that since the very year 1991, Russia has never ceased hoping and planning the return of the empire and even more . . . we feel that Ukraine is like a pawn, an appetizer, for Russia. If they are not stopped – more and more countries will suffer.”

But that sort of message seems to fall on deaf ears.

“Ukrainians feel like they’re being hung out to dry,” explains Gerard de Vuyst, a Christian Reformed pastor working in Kyiv. “The thing that we hear more than anything else is that Ukrainians are extremely frustrated by the lack of response from the West . . . Europe is already talking about lifting sanctions against Russia.”

And no wonder: much of what we know about the Russia-Ukraine situation might be straight from Russia’s pen. Ukraine, whose government is riddled with corruption and lacking strong leadership, “doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with the media campaign that Russia is waging . . . the world isn’t hearing Ukraine’s side,” de Vuyst observes.

It doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the expenses of war, either. It can’t afford much besides old, rusty, Soviet-era makeover weapons for its troops. Its currency dropped 50 percent in only two days last month. It is drafting soldiers by the tens of thousands. Without imminent world financial aid, according to Forbes magazine, Ukraine’s economy faces collapse.

A vision for new leaders in the midst of turmoil
But, as de Vuyst sees it, the Ukrainian church should now shine brighter: “God has placed the church here in this time in a very strategic manner – the church can be an agent of reconciliation in this horrendous and horrific situation.” Organizations like Youth for Christ and Students Without Walls are tireless examples of just such work (see related interview on page 3).

However, reconciliation and aid in a crisis situation takes training. And that’s where de Vuyst comes in.

Already a church-planter in Ukraine, de Vuyst was approached in 2010 by the Timothy Leadership Training Institute, a highly practical grassroots program for the training of native church leaders begun in 1997 in Kenya and now spread to 57 countries, including, in nascent stages, eastern Europe. They wanted de Vuyst to be a trainer in Ukraine.

The Institute, now picking up momentum, operates often in partnership with the Association for Spiritual Renewal (ASR), which is currently overwhelmed with social service efforts, distributing humanitarian aid and Scripture placement through its network of church leaders.

“The church in Ukraine is trying very hard to find its place in a very difficult cultural situation. There’s been a lot of upheaval in the last 20 years and now especially in the last year,” de Vuyst concludes.. “Pastors have been killed or disappeared, have been kidnapped or imprisoned [and] church buildings have been expropriated by the militants and turned into their bases . . . they need Christians in Canada and in the U.S. to stand up for the church here.”

Igor and Inna would agree. As they spoke with a translator for CC’s interview, Inna would every so often duck her head and hide it under her palm. Each time, Igor reassured her: “it’s just the children playing.” Eventually, the translator realized that Inna, with reflexive fear, was ducking from the sound of a basketball on the floor above the office.

And yet, without jobs, far from home and unsure of the future, Igor and Inna hold onto both hope and love. “Pray for the salvation of our nation,” they beg. “Pray for God’s protection over the soldiers, volunteers and chaplains who regularly go to very dangerous spots to share the Good News with soldiers. Pray for God’s healing in hearts and minds. Pray for the repentance of Putin and authorities; may they know God’s love and turn away from their evil deeds. Pray, as we all do: May God frustrate the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot carry out their plans.”

  • Judith Dinsmore is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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