Russian-German missiologist pleads for ceasefire in Ukraine

26-12-2023

Eastern Europe

William Yoder

A Ukrainian soldier holds his position at the front line near the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Horlivka, Donetsk region. Photo AFP, Anatolii Stepanov

"Putin is supported by two-thirds of the countries in the world," claimed the missiologist and professor Johannes Reimer at a lecture in the Baptist church of Berlin-Lichtenberg on 9 December. "That's because he's the one who has stood up to the West."

In Russia itself, however, Reimer sees the mood as more differentiated. According to his impression, Russia's Protestants do not support the Orthodox concepts of Byzantium and an East Slavic "Russian world". He is also personally opposed to the Orthodox concept of a "symphony" between church and state. Although the Pentecostal bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky (Moscow) is a member of his country's Public Chamber and supports Russian foreign policy, he only represents a small minority of Protestants. Reimer accused the Kremlin of pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and assured the audience that Russian Protestants were not in favour of the current war: "Many are simply waiting things out."

Nevertheless, this Russian-German, who was born in the Soviet Union in 1955, expressed understanding for the feelings of Russians. "The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has had its cradle stolen." According to their understanding, Russian Orthodoxy was originally founded in Kiev.

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Johannes Reimer. Photo Uwe Klössing/Werdewelt

The professor sees today's Russia - and Ukraine - as multi-ethnic states. Since the beginning of the enlarged war, around three million Ukrainian citizens have fled to Russia. Roughly eight million people ethnic Russians lived in Ukraine until Maidan in 2014. Ethnic Russians are clearly the minority in more than a few distant regions of Russia. Reimer reported on recent missionary successes among the Finno-Ugric Khanty in the oil-producing region of Surgut, which he visited recently. However, these developments are not reported in the West.

He also emphasised the humanitarian aid that Russians and non-Russian citizens of Russia are providing to needy Ukrainians. Former Muslims from Cherkesk (near Pyatigorsk in the Caucasus) have repeatedly brought humanitarian aid to Mariupol out of sheer love for their new partners in faith: "They pray for the well-being of Ukrainians." There have also been Russians in Russia who have helped Ukrainians flee to the West.

The Ukrainians

The speaker conceded that Christian organisations based in Kiev do not approve of humanitarian aid for Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine and the former Ukraine.

For that reason, this modest amount of aid is being provided as quietly as possible. One of the reasons given by Kiev is: "Reconstruction is not worth the bother. We'll bomb everything again anyway." The professor, on the other hand, said: "The Russian Protestants deserve our gratitude for their efforts. And they are doing it out of love for the Ukrainians."

Reimer reported that the still numerous missionaries of Ukrainian origin in the vast expanses of Russia are regarded as traitors in their old homeland and are consequently ignored. During his recent trip to Siberia, 13 of the 16 Protestant bishops the speaker met were of Ukrainian origin.

Professor Reimer wants to differentiate. The first wave of refugees from Western Ukraine included more than a few economic refugees (there were also conscripts among them - ed.). Only later did the severely traumatised survivors of the battles in Eastern Ukraine arrive.

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Ukrainian refugees of a passenger train from Odessa arrive at the train station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland. Photo EPA, Darek Delmanowicz

The speaker lamented the contradictions present among Ukrainian refugees. They have included "formidable nationalists" emigrating to California or Germany. Widespread corruption has not been overcome in war-torn Ukraine. War profiteering is a common phenomenom.

According to Johannes Reimer, pushing through a centralised monolithic state in a multi-ethnic country has proven to be disastrous. The insistence on installing Ukrainian as the sole national language ignored the feelings of the Romanian, Tatar, Hungarian (and Russian) minorities.

Ukrainian Protestants helped institute centralised policy. The participation of upright Protestants had been sought everywhere. Consequently, believers abandoned their traditional reserve regarding the state; they became politicised and chose to follow the beat of new, foreign drums. According to Reimer, it is not enough to attribute the persistent silence of Russian Protestants to fear and cowardice: "They have a different understanding of the Gospel." They believe in social transformation through the Gospel, and not through politics.

What must the West do?

Reimer is convinced that Protestantism must pay more attention to the churches in the non-Western two-thirds world. For this reason, efforts are underway to relocate church offices and branches to countries in the two-thirds world.

A few Christian organisations in the West are keen to deliver humanitarian aid to Russian-controlled regions partly via the Caucasus. Yet they are still waiting on approval from the Russian authorities.

The professor is convinced that Christians need to campaign much more vehemently for peace. "Red lines" - meaning state borders - should not be recognised. The borders of Central Asia and elsewhere were arbitrarily drawn up by colonial powers. They are therefore a Pandora's box. Someone looking through historical glasses would have cause to award Crimea to Turkey.

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Ukrainian supporters rally during the 78th United Nations General Assembly, outside of UN headquarters in New York City. Photo AFP, Bryan R. Smith

Reimer considers the demand for an immediate ceasefire to be indispensable. Talks must include Russia. "There is no peace without the Russians," assured Gottfried Hain, head of a Baptist congregation in Guben/Neisse. "There are no bad peoples," added a Russian participant. "Where are the Christian reconciliation centres?" asked the speaker. Centres for the treatment of trauma are also in demand. "And where does one find church marches for peace?"

Last but not least: Contact must be maintained with those residing in Russia. The theologian leads by example. Although he was denied visas in the first year after the expansion of the war, he has visited Russia several times since then. Reimer, who is a professor at the "University of South Africa" in Pretoria, only has German citizenship. The theologian, who emigrated from the USSR in 1976 following persecution, reported that the Russians, and occasionally the Russian authorities themselves, are very welcoming.

This evening was organised by the "Regional ‘Association of Berlin-Brandenburg within the Federation of Evangelical-Free Churches in Germany” (Baptist) on behalf of its "Working Group for Central and Eastern Europe".

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