Ukrainian believers and the “Christian” Putin

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Pastor Sergey Perkhalskiy made sure to convert his Christian Hope church in Kyiv into a bomb shelter before leaving the capital last week. He had to make a difficult choice: stay with his congregation or leave to protect his family, including his elderly parents. Either way, he says, “we overcome fear by helping each other.” Mr. Perkhalskiy’s church is Pentecostal. Like many Protestant clergy, he knows that today’s trauma is a foretaste of tomorrow’s shipwreck if Vladimir Putin were to conquer Ukraine.

Protestant churches have proliferated by the hundreds since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In recent years, however, Moscow agents have steadily intensified their harassment and intimidation tactics against these congregations. The results: Church property seized, clergy tortured and killed.

They have a new and unlikely lawyer in Natalie Jaresko, the former finance minister who led Ukraine’s $15 billion debt restructuring in 2015. Ms Jaresko, 56, is Orthodox, born in the West Chicago side of Ukrainians who survived Nazi death camps. She returned to her family’s homeland a few months after independence.

Ms Jaresko notes a tendency among some religious conservatives in the United States to think that Mr Putin defends Christian values ​​because he takes traditionalist views on social issues. These Americans, she says, ignore the dictator’s attacks on their co-religionists. “Ukraine is a tolerant society with deep Christian roots,” she says, “but that’s what Putin can’t stand. He can’t stand a Slavic nation on his border that has a successful, albeit messy, democracy. He cannot stand an example of democratic success alongside while he remains an example of oppression.

Lured for many years by statements suggesting Mr Putin is pro-church, anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage, some religious conservatives have been reluctant to acknowledge the Russian leader’s expansionist aims. Ms. Jaresko thinks that’s a mistake. “It is a misunderstanding that Putin’s illiberalism is aligned with Christian beliefs. His Christianity is a mythology and is flawed in substance. With Mr. Putin’s attack on a country that is nearly 80% Christian, Ukrainians’ dark resolve to fight is not just patriotic. It is a battle for their beliefs.

In Ukraine, non-Orthodox Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, have the same legal status as the Orthodox majority. President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. Ms. Jaresko has served in cabinet alongside Greek Catholic and Baptist ministers.

“It was a multi-faith, multilingual government in an environment that tolerated our differences,” she says. This is not the case in Russia or areas occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014, including Donbass in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia took by force in 2014. .

Pro-Russian Donbass fighters have taken over Christian churches and universities, some violently. Militiamen abducted, tortured and killed four Pentecostal deacons. Their bodies were found in a mass grave with two dozen others. A watchdog group, the European Evangelical Alliance, called the Donbass “the region of Europe where the Church suffers the most”.

In Crimea, Russian prosecutors punish Protestants and Tatars, who are mostly Muslims, under ill-defined “anti-missionary” laws. Of 23 cases brought to trial in 2021, all resulted in guilty verdicts and fines. Meanwhile, the number of Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Crimea has decreased since 2014, from 46 to six.

If Mr. Putin’s military campaign wins, “he will do in all areas under his control what he did in the Donbass and Crimea,” said former US ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst. “This is very bad news for all members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for all Crimean Tatars who remained, and for Evangelicals and for all Protestants living in Ukraine.”

In 2020, Mr Herbst told a government panel that “Moscow sees religion as a key front in the battle to control both Crimea and Donbass, and to project its influence on the rest of Ukraine”.

Russia’s crackdown is in some ways more threatening than ethnic or religious cleansing, Perkhalskiy says. “It’s not about hating Christian believers, it’s about trying to bring in an ideology of control to destroy the mind and the will. Putin is doing the same thing as Stalin, raising the one Soviet man and making everyone else the enemy. It is an anti-human ideology.

Ukrainian Christians swear to fight. Two days after the start of the Russian assault, 10 evangelical seminaries in the region, including five in Ukraine and two in Russia, issued a joint statement condemning Mr Putin for “open and unjustified aggression” and “blatant lies”. Their statement, if Mr. Putin succeeds in Ukraine, could turn into evidence against them.

“That has always been our reality, and we knew that as Christian believers we would form a resistance,” Perkhalskiy said. “Now we are a whole nation of resisters.”

Ms. Belz is a former editor of World Magazine and author of “They Say We Are Infidels”.

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