"Cherson kneels not to Putin, but to the King of kings"
René Zeeman, RD
While Russian President Putin could not force the residents of the Ukrainian town of Cherson to their knees, God made them kneel. "Our church is fuller than ever."
The 70-year-old Baptist pastor Sergey Siniy is in the Netherlands for a few days at the invitation of the Christian Refugee Relief Foundation. He has come to talk about the huge need in the southern Ukrainian city and the miracle of revival in his "Church of Christ the Redeemer". "Before the war, the congregation consisted of 220 souls, and there were 25 people in a service. Now we have services six times a week with 350 people."
Siniy tells his story in the Dutch foundation's office. In front of him on the table is his Bible, in which several texts are marked. To his right sits interpreter Natalia, an English teacher from his congregation.
The Russians occupied Cherson early on in late February 2022. Siniy: "From Crimea, the peninsula Russia conquered in 2014, Russian forces invaded our city. This happened without a shot being fired. When we opened our eyes in the morning, the Russians were there with their tanks. It was a huge shock. The fear among the population was great."
For the first few days, the Russian military checked homes for guns. Many residents fled the 300,000-strong city in a hurry. "Citizens who showed their displeasure and scolded the Russians disappeared into prison," says the pastor.
The Russians allegedly tortured and raped residents. Did you witness any of that?
"A sister of my wife went to jail. Her house was checked for weapons. Apparently, they found something they didn't like because she was taken away. Nobody knew where she was taken. People were beaten and raped. Sometimes women standing at a bus stop were simply picked up. Nobody knew where to and what happened to them."
We also hear about the deportations of Ukrainian children. Did this also happen in Cherson?
"Children were invited to camps. There they could supposedly recover, and relaxation was offered. Sometimes parents responded and brought their children. These were then taken to Russia. Parents who realised what was happening quickly collected their children. Sometimes they were too late. Protesting was useless."
Did the Russians respect you as a pastor?
"No, they were lord and master and had no respect whatsoever. They also came to our church to check everything. They even attended services to hear what I preached."
Residents of Cherson were said to have collaborated with the Russians. Have you noticed any collaborators?
"People are partly accused of it because they continued their work. I have cancer and am under treatment by a specialist. That doctor stayed at his post. Does that make him a collaborator? It is complex. People in the media were tools in the hands of the Russians to brainwash us. In their case, it is different.
Remember also that many people were left without food for themselves and their children. We were cut off from Ukraine and had nowhere to fall back on. There were cases of residents accepting Russian passports for food and more rights. You only have to have five children and no food. Are you then a collaborator if you, as a mother, go to get a Russian passport and then get food?"
Numerous Cherson residents knocked on the door of Siniy and his congregation. "The Orthodox churches were closed. No one could go there anymore. Unbelievers had nothing at all to fall back on. Because we received money from the Netherlands and other countries, we could buy food and distribute it. We had the means to work with the broken hearts of these people. God used this situation to come to His glory. Our country has been brought to its knees before God."
So the fruit of the occupation is that the people of Cherson are bowing not to Putin or the Kremlin but to the King of heaven and earth?
"I have been working as a pastor in the church for 38 years, and I can say that I have never experienced such a miracle. Our church is overflowing with people who have never seen a house of worship inside. We hand out Bibles. People read and pray with us. On Sundays, hundreds of people come for the service, and other days of the week."
Siniy did not leave Cherson because he believed "God was looking for someone who could stand firm in the storm that swept over the country". The pastor's children living in the United States asked him to leave Ukraine. "My wife and I decided to stay. We were born and married here and hope to die here."
In November 2022, Cherson was liberated by the Ukrainian army. But the suffering for residents was not over. In June this year, the Russians blew up the Kakhovka dam. An immense flood of water flooded Cherson and the surrounding areas. Siniy: "People drowned, livestock was lost, and houses were destroyed. Many people now have nothing at all."
It led to even more people knocking on Siniy and his church's door. He housed ten families who no longer had a place to spend the night in the basement or rather the shelter. "Across the river, about 800 metres away, the Russians are shelling what is left of our city. We are no longer under occupation but still under fire."
If Siniy has money, he wants to install walls in the basement so that the families have some privacy. "Running water should also be there if we have the financial means."
Can you forgive the Russians?
Siniy, emotional: "Do I have to answer this question? It is difficult for me. I have submitted it to God."
Natania is likewise unable to control her tears. "Young men are fighting at the front. That is so hard to see."
This article was translated by CNE.news and previously published in the Dutch Christian daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on July 21st, 2023.
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