Unthinkable as it is, a war is raging in Eastern Europe right now.* Three regions of one country have now been taken over by Separatist Rebels, in league with well-equipped foreign military forces. There have been terrible tragedies, with over ten thousand dead, thousands injured and traumatised, and over one million displaced persons. Despite a pseudo-ceasefire that has reduced some of the shelling, the fighting continues, with tragic consequences.
This armed struggle has created a new reality for Christians there too. Some are being conscripted unwillingly into the army to fight. The churches are faced with a huge humanitarian crisis of those running from the traumas of war. ‘There is a time for words, and a time for action,’ said one pastor recently, about the many ways the churches are reaching out to the needy. But another kind of conflict has also begun, with evangelical Christians in the crosshairs.
Christians as enemies
As I write these words, the Rebel leader of the new ‘Occupied Territories’ just announced that only four religions will be tolerated in the new ‘Republics’: Russian Orthodox, Catholicism, Islam and Judaism. All the others, he said, will be ‘excommunicated from our society… I’m going to fight hard against the sects.’ This sadly includes all evangelical Christians.
We have already started to see this over recent months. The venom with which these Separatist leaders have set about persecuting Christians has been brutal. They see Christian believers as part of the ‘evil West,’ due to the terrible lies and propaganda that is being broadcast day and night in the occupied regions. In many ways this looks like a tragic return to some of the worst periods of the 20th century in these parts, as the church is once again being forced underground.
Tortured for Christ
Arrests, beatings and imprisonments have already begun for some of the pastors in these regions as well as for others reaching out to their communities. One of our colleagues, Pastor Sergey, was part of the team co-ordinating a prayer tent in the centre of one city, in the early days of the crisis, where people from different churches could come to pray for peace, for unity, and for God’s intervention. In May last year, 15 gunmen from a local paramilitary group destroyed the prayer tent, calling them ‘Schismatics’ and ‘Satanists’. They took all of the equipment away and threatened to shoot anyone who came to pray there.
Pastor Sergey himself was taken. He gave us this account: ‘I was grabbed by the Rebels right after the prayer time on the square. I was accused of stirring up people against them. After 8 hours of continuous torture, they released me, saying, “If we catch you again, you are dead”.’
Another man was taken with him, Pastor Nikolai, they also took his car and never gave it back. As he was released, they said to him, ‘If you continue to do any religious activities, you will be shot.’ This is a repeating story for many gospel workers in this region.
Another, Pastor Aleksander, was kidnapped last August after being found praying in the central square of one of the occupied cities. He was accused of proselytizing a sect religion and was told, ‘There shall only be one religion in this land’, which his captors said should be the Orthodox religion. During his four days in captivity they beat and repeatedly suffocated him.
In another city, which was under Rebel control before being liberated last summer, four members of the evangelical church were taken after a service: two of the pastor’s sons and two of the church’s deacons. They were beaten and killed, with their bodies found later in a mass grave near a local hospital after the Rebel fighters had left the city. Their photos are here.
14 years old
In a different town, another Pastor Sergey was arrested along with his 14 year-old son Daniel, as they were giving out aid and gospels in the street. They were taken on a Monday, and many assumed that they had been killed as there was no word where they were being held. Amidst great grief his wife and other children prayed for them every day, and on the Friday father and son were both released. They had been tortured for four days and nights.
Daniel was already trusting Christ when he was taken, yet what a trial of his faith for one so young. Both of them have declined to say what was done to them while in captivity, although their bodies bear the marks of brutality. Pastor Sergey would only say, ‘I watched my son be tortured over and over, and not once did he dishonour the name of Christ!’ What a challenge to us all!
Many church buildings have also now been confiscated by the Rebel leaders – at least 16 so far, to our knowledge. Some of these have later been returned, with everything stolen and all of the food in the cellars eaten, but the majority remain in the hands of the soldiers, so the Christians have to meet elsewhere, usually in homes.
The only Bible College in this region was also taken last June. It is now a military centre with a few hundred Rebel fighters living there, where once the Bible students stayed. Tanks are parked in the driveway and on the grass around the college.
Threats to God’s people
When faced with such dangers, what are God’s people to do? Should they leave as refugees, leaving these regions without any Christian witness at all? Or should they remain and face the dangers, at such cost to themselves? These are difficult decisions for believers in these regions every day. Last August, during one church service, 30 gunmen with assault rifles burst in and ordered a halt to the service. They forbade the congregation to ever come back to that church in future. As a result around 60 Christians fled the region.
In another town, under similar threats, one evangelical church prayed one Sunday about whether they should all leave as refugees the next day. But after prayer, every family courageously decided to stay, to serve and reach out to their communities, despite the risks and threats. They need our prayers.
What can we pray?
1 Peter 5:10 is very helpful: ‘And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.’ We can pray for those four works of Christ in the lives of our brothers and sisters in danger. In many ways God is already doing this, in answer to our prayers. We know from Romans 5:3 that ‘suffering produces endurance’. The witness of Christ’s people is enduring, despite the cauldron of intense heat, and many are being saved.
Hebrews 13:3 always challenges me, ‘Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.’ We are thankful not to face those kinds of beatings (yet) in the UK. But the body of Christ is suffering, and we are in the body too, joined and connected with them, so we also suffer. Let’s stand with them in prayer, and support them as we can, and long for the name of Jesus to be lifted high.
*All surnames and place names have been omitted for safety reasons.