Ukrainian Evangelicals break from Moscow too

24-06-2022

Eastern Europe

William Immink, CNE.news

Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky. Screenshot from YouTube

The Russian’ special military operation’ in Ukraine has rather troubled the tight relationship between Russian and Ukrainian Protestant churches. Even so, that some church denominations won’t speak to each other anymore.

The military operation in the Donbas has put Russian Christians in a difficult position for the past few months. Many believers are good civilians and patriots of their motherland, Russia. Most churchgoers even understand and agree with Putin’s reasons to go in the attack on February 24th to ‘free’ Russians in Ukraine. But on the other hand, Russian Protestants usually do not support war as a means.

This uneasy split was also felt in the words of Sergey Ryakhovsky, the highest bishop of the Russian Union of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches (CEF), when he uploaded a speech on February 25th – a day after the start of the invasion. He emphasised the ties between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, echoing pro-Kremlin Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill.

According to Mr Ryakhovsky, “many missionaries from Ukraine” have become pastors and bishops in Russian churches for the past thirty years. The most well-known Russian Protestant said he is “sure that this will serve as a quick reconciliation.”

In his speech, Mr Ryakhosvky refrained from condemning the conflict. Still, he called the war from the Russian perspective a “conflict of fratricide that has been going on for eight years”. The bishop from the CEF Union called on believers not to post too much on social media where “a war rages of passion and emotions”. According to him, fasting and praying for a “divine solution” to the conflict is way better.

Fight

The real quarrel only began when bishop Ryakhovsky, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber, took part in an all-religion meeting in the Duma – the Russian parliament, on March 29th. There he spoke out against “fascism and Nazism in the 21st century” in the context of the Ukraine war, without even speaking a word of condemnation of the special operation. The event’s conclusion, where leaders of all traditional religions of Russia were gathered, was the unanimous support for the denazification of Ukraine to end discrimination against Russian-speaking peoples.

The quotes of church leader Ryakhovsky were a bridge too far for the Ukrainian church union “Word of Life”, which is part of Ryakhovsky’s CEF network. For the Ukrainians, the “unambiguous support for the war, motivated with Christian love” by Ryakhovsky was the reason to “temporarily put to a stop” the ties with pastors and bishops in Russia.

The Word of Life-church leadership first expects a clear position against the war in Ukraine from the CEF church Union and “open repentance for the war and the sin of the Russian people and government” and, in addition, “personal repentance from the side of Sergey Ryakhovsky”.

Grumbling

Criticism also came from certain pastors and bishops inside Russia: “What happened, Sergey Vasilievich?”, bishop Vasilii Kogan, originally from Ukraine, wrote from his church in Novosibirsk, Siberia. “Most Christians in Russia are silent now, and I do not condemn them. But it is one thing to remain silent. Still, it is quite another thing to stand up for those levelling peaceful Ukrainian cities to the ground and crushing the brotherly people with tanks.”

“Can a bishop even support an ideology that calls for the killing of people”, bishop Kogan asked out loud. Mr Kogan has been driving to and from Ukraine to evacuate people from their shelters and hide-outs. “While your brothers are being shot in the streets of Ukraine’s cities, you seduce thousands of Russian Christians and convince them with your speeches that Russia’ brings love’ to Ukraine.”

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Mr Ryakhovsky (4th from left) present at a meeting of religious leaders with President Putin (centre), November 2019. Photo EPA, Evgenia Novozhenina

Repentance

In a response, bishop Ryakhovsky said that his Russian Protestant church treats its Ukrainian brothers with deep understanding: “We also feel the pain, we feel the suffering they are in because of certain political trends that are now prevailing in the world, because of global geopolitics.”

According to the Evangelical bishop, who responded in a video, many took his statements out of context. In the Duma event, he was trying to say that “hate can only be overcome by love” and that he was not trying to “call to kill with love”. Mr Ryakhovsky sees the harsh statements of the Ukrainian Protestant organisations as in line with the Russophobia that is spreading worldwide.

How complicated the relationship between Christians in both countries might be, the bishop is unwilling to meet the demands of the Ukrainian brothers: “We will continue to pray for them, but from our side, there will be no response, no answer. We will not add fuel to the fire.”

Mr Ryakhovsky added that Russian Christians, “as citizens and patriots of Russia”, should not meddle with politics: “We must pray for our leaders, pray for our President, for the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. We believe that one day the special operation, the animosities will end. And then we will rebuild our relationship and continue to serve God and the peoples of our countries.”

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