Ukrainian Church leaders: The West must wake up to the threat of Russia

Pro-Russian separatists ride on a tank in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.Reuters

The Western Church must recognise the seriousness of the conflict in Ukraine, a group of Ukrainian religious leaders said at a consultation at Lambeth Palace in London yesterday.

Bishop Anatoly Kalyuzhny, senior pastor of the Council of Evangelical Churches in Ukraine, said that although the conflict in Ukraine may seem distant, Russia's dominant behaviour poses a challenge to the entire Western world.

"If children are not dying on the streets of London today, that doesn't meant this cannot come to you. Today the world is very small. What is happening in Ukraine today can happen here tomorrow," the bishop said.

The conflict in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has resulted in the internal displacement of about 1.2 million people in the last year. At least 6,100 people have been killed, and a further 15,500 have been wounded since mid-April 2104, according to UN estimates. Hundreds more are still missing, meaning that the actual figures could be considerably higher.

Rev Dr Yuri Sipko, former President of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Russia (left); Rev Dr David Coffey, BMS World Mission Global Ambassador (centre), and Bishop Mykhailo Panochko, President of the Evangelical Faith of Ukraine (right) prayed before delegates signing the resolution.BMS World Mission

One of the aims of yesterday's consultation of religious leaders from Ukraine and Britain, hosted by BMS World Mission and Mission Eurasia, was to raise awareness of the conflict among the Western Church, where it is felt that the threat from Russia continues to be largely misunderstood.

"There [in Ukraine] today not just the fate of Ukraine is being decided, not just the future of Putin, but the future of all our civilisation," Bishop Kalyuzhniy said.

He emphasised that this was not a threat from a terrorist group or internal conflict, but external influence from Russia – a nation state with one of the world's largest armies, a country that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power.

"This is a great Russian bear, that in front of the whole world is trying to strangle 43 million Ukrainians economically, physically and through its propaganda to smear it," he said.

The bishop described Putin's actions as "the works of the antichrist".

Dr Mykhailo Cherenkov, professor of social theology at the Ukrainian Seminary of Evangelical Theology, described Russia's actions in Ukraine as part of a 'holy war' driven not by religious belief, but by faith in the Russian ideal – a conflation of cultural, political and religious ideology.

"The goal of the holy war is not seizure of territory, or change or power, or the defeat of opponents, but victory... of faith over lack of faith, of truth over all untruths; of holy Russia over a decaying, secular West," Cherenkov said.

Gathering accurate information is one of the fundamental difficulties about the events in Ukraine. Russia's propaganda machine heavily controls access to news and information in Russia and Crimea, and the Ukrainian government also has a vested interest in downplaying the problem in order to minimise public fear.

The Kremlin continues to deny that there are Russian troops in Ukraine and describes the annexation of Crimea as a glorious homecoming. On the anniversary of the annexation in March, President Putin said: "A year ago today, Russia and the Russian people demonstrated an amazing focus and amazing patriotism by helping the people of Crimea and Sevastopol to return to their home shores."

The ceasefire agreement brokered by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in Minsk in February this year has been broken repeatedly. Yesterday Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned that the resumption of full-blown war was an ongoing threat.

"The Minsk agreement is not even worth the paper it is written on," Cherenkov said. But despite his lack of confidence in a political solution in the present conditions, he expressed a sense of hope for the role of faith and the faithful, adding that "The best response to war is our unity."

"When separated from politics and becoming issue of international solidarity, our faith can become a solution," he said "There is no greater power in this conflict than religion."

The Church in Ukraine has been involved since the Euromaidan demonstrations, which started in Kiev in November 2013, with priests alongside protestors at the front lines calling for closer European integration and an end to corruption.

Maidan became a unifying force, and now the work continues to try to use the unity seen in the church in humanitarian relief, and perhaps even more crucially in the effort to restore peace. Bishop Mykhailo Panochko, senior bishop of the Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith of Ukraine, said that it was now more trusted than the government and so had a vital role to play.

Although respected by the civilians, churches in eastern Ukraine, in the regions controlled by pro-Russian separatists have been subject to attacks. There have been numerous reports of attacks on churches and leaders from evangelical churches. In July last year, four men from Transfiguration Evangelical Church in Sloviansk, Donetsk were tortured and killed. A number of churches buildings have been taken over and used by the rebels and others burned to the ground.

Olexander Zaiets, head of the Kiev-based Institute of Religious Freedom, told Christian Today that the suppression of religion in the region was a warning to the West about the danger posed to freedom – not just for Christian communities, but to civil society and the freedom of thought.

While the religious leaders were united in calls for peace, there was some disagreement over whether there could be reconciliation in Ukraine before peace is guaranteed.

Rev Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, who visited the country last week, said that the Church's work of encouraging reconciliation between people should start even as war continues.

He said that although Christians must speak of reconciliation in humility – acknowledging our own failings, we can have "greater trust in a God who reconciles than in our own ability to be reconciled with each other."

But Bishop Panochko disagreed; he likened the idea of trying to forge reconciliation in the midst of war to trying to mend the roof of a house in the middle of a hurricane.

"Churches can only soften the suffering and pain being experienced," he said. "Reconciliation begins when the fire has been put out."

Archbishop Evstratiy Zoria of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kiev Patriarchate acknowledged that it is "very difficult discussing with our Russian brothers". But, he said, the Bible tells us that "If possible, be at peace with all."

He added that the situation between Ukraine and Russia now reminded him of the 1960s and the restraints on church leaders in the Soviet Union. "We from Ukraine are in the place where the West, the US used to be. I used to be in their position and understand. It's easy to say what we think because we won't be tried as criminals for what we say," the Archbishop said. "We must remember that according to Russian law someone who says the words 'Crimea is Ukraine' could receive a five-year prison sentence for that."

At the end of the day-long consultation the church leaders signed a resolution acknowledging the humanitarian cost of the conflict, and calling on the international Christian community to stand in solidarity with those who are being persecuted for their faith.

"Today, the leaders of Ukrainian churches appeal to the global Christian community for solidarity, support and the defence of freedom, justice and peace in Ukraine," the resolution said.