Belarussian pastor preaches in prison

28-01-2023

Eastern Europe

Joe-Lize Brugge, CNE.news

Christians pray during a protest march in Minsk, Belarus. They protest the election of Aleksandr Lukashenko, which they claim was fraudulous. Photo AFP, Sergei Gapon

Once a thief, always a thief, Belarussian pastor Vitaly Chichmarev thought about prisoners. Until he was detained himself. “I talked to detainees, saw their tears and heard their stories. Then I realised more than ever that they need God too.”

Now, pastor Vitaly Chichmarev has to show up at the police station every week. If he leaves the city of Minsk without permission, he will go back to prison. And the constables are entitled know his entire agenda and to come to his house to check whether he is really there. Officially, the pastor is under house arrest until 2024. Yet, he is happy and feels free. “It is uncomfortable, but not very heavy.”

Miracle

Actually, he had not expected to stay at home now, the 47-year-old pastor tells in an interview with CNE.news. A few months ago, he still feared that he would be jailed for a long time. Yet, he was released on November 11 and can continue his ministry in relative freedom.

The Belarussian pastor sees it as a miracle of God that he can stay with his family again. After seven months of prison, he was released in a few hours. “Usually, these court cases take two days. Mine was over in a few hours. I could not believe my ears when I heard that I was allowed to go home. I think you can compare my feelings to those of Peter in the Bible when an angel liberated him from prison. It felt like a dream.”

Protests

The controversial election of changed the life of the pastor dramatically in 2020. After the controversial election of President Lukashenko, the opposition claimed that the elections had been full of fraud. Protests broke out all throughout the country.

Chichmarev went to the streets as well in a so-called peace march of the trade union he belonged to. But it was more than politics. “For me, the most important reason was that the marches offered the possibility of telling people about the Gospel. I also met several old acquaintances. Some of them have returned to church now”, he says. However, he cannot tell much more about the political marches and their purpose, afraid that he will be detained again.

Baptist pastor

Pastor Vitaly Chichmarev is born in 1975. He lives in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Chichmarev is married to Svetlana and has an 18-year-old daughter, Alina.

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Pastor Vitaly Chichmarev. Photo Vitaly Chichmarev

For four years, he has been the second pastor of the Light of Hope Church, a registered Baptist congregation in Minsk. His church currently has about 50 members. Before the political unrest in the country broke out, it attracted more than 100 attendees. Now, many of them have left for the United States and Poland.

Until 2020, Chichmarev worked in electrical engineering. However, because of his participation in the peace marches, his employer fired him. Now, his main job is his ministry. In addition, he likes to make music, either on his guitar or as a vocalist. He uses his musical talents in the church services as well.

In the marches, Chichmarev did not only give civic criticism to the authorities. “I said that the actions of the government against the protests were sinful. That critique led to pressure from the government”, he recalls, denying that his arrest was an anti-Christian action.

Yet, it was a stressful period for the pastor. “I never wondered if they would come for me,” he says, “but only when.”

Sacrificing children

For two years nothing happened. The Belarussian authorities still had to find a way to interpret the law in such a manner that participation in the peace marches became illegal.

But inevitably the knocks on the door came in April 2022. Only Chichmarev and his daughter were home at that moment. The police told the pastor that he was under arrest for the events in 2020. His daughter was bewildered, but the pastor had to go along to a building of the Belarussian secret service KGB. There the pastor was flooded with a stream of questions.

In the questions of the guards, the pastor recognised ancient Soviet gossips about Baptists. For instance, they whispered that these believers sacrifice children and steal money from people. Chichmarev smiles. “Fortunately, that changed when they saw me in real and could ask me questions.” In general, the pastor finds his treatment by the authorities very reasonable, he says.

Meanwhile, his family went through a hard time. Wife Svetlana continued her household as she used to, but the uncertainty of what happened and how long her husband will be gone weighed heavily on her. According to Chichmarev, she now says that she only survived this period because she attended prayer meetings. “She prayed very often and now says that without God, she would not have gotten through this.”

Bible

For seven months, Chichmarev was kept in prison. Still he did not complain. Looking back, he says that his time in custody was actually a blessed time. The first ten days of detention, the pastor was locked up in a cell with six other inmates. His wife wanted to give him a Bible, but her request was refused. However, that did not prevent the pastor from sharing the Gospel to the other detainees. “I was a pastor, psychologist and family coach at once.”

Surprisingly, that did not lead to any consequences. The guards did not really care about what happened inside the cells, the pastor remembers. “As long as we did not act up, we could do whatever we wanted. That meant that I could talk to other people about my faith, and even celebrate the Lord’s Supper when it was Easter.”

In the second prison where the pastor was locked up, he stayed with 15 other people at 18 square metres. There, he received a Bible from one of his fellow detainees.

Revelation

Pastor Chichmarev experiences that his time in prison has brought him closer to God. “When I was locked up, I did not ask God why I was there, but what the end of it was. And God answered through showing me fruits of my pastoral work in jail.”

Once, a young man came up to Chichmarev and asked Who God was. Now, the pastor sees that event as a miracle. “At the moment I prayed why I was in prison, God sent this man. Then I knew.”

At another time, pastor Chichmarev dreamt about one of his fellow prisoners. The next day, he told that person in question that God had shown him something about a promise this prisoner had made. “He was very surprised I knew about it, because he had never told anybody”, Chichmarev says. As a result, the man started to read the Bible and asked the pastor questions. The two of them still exchange letters.

Even though none of the people he met in prison attended a church service yet, pastor Chichmarev has good hope that one day they will. “It is hard to say whether they are believers now. But they ask for prayer. And if they are as interested as they indicated they are, they will inevitably come to church.”

Government crackdown

Belarus is the last European dictatorship. After turbulent elections in 2020, the government has hunted down opposing voices. Right after the infamous elections, the Belarussian opposition claimed that the ballots had been fraudulous. In response, the Belarussian population went to the streets en masse, which resulted in a government crackdown. The leader of the Belarussian opposition party, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled abroad and is now acknowledged by many Western European countries to be the Belarussian president in exile.

Chain

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