‘Imminent Risk’ for Ukraine Faithful
The top official of a government watchdog agency is warning of an “imminent risk” for non-Russian Orthodox religious groups in Ukraine should Russia’s invasion be successful. Nadine Maenza, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), suggests Russia’s recent track record is troubling.
“Russia is one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. Narratives that Putin supports Christian values is completely false,” she tweeted on March 10.
One case in point for Maenza is Russia’s practices in the Crimea and Donbas regions that are occupied by Russia and its agents. In an interview on March 3 with FOX News, she said Russia uses “violations to suppress dissent and terrorize the population” in those places.
The European Evangelical Alliance reports that many evangelical Christians and other groups are labelled as illegal extremists in Donbas — an area of eastern Ukraine overtaken by Russia-backed rebels. Churches have been seized and a Christian university is now occupied by soldiers. Thomas Bucher, general secretary of the Alliance, called Donbas “the area of Europe where the church suffers the most.”
Also, the most recent USCIRF report on Russia highlights bans and prosecutions against religious activity in Crimea that was legal under Ukrainian law prior to the occupation. Moreover, the report notes the eviction of a non-Russian Orthodox congregation from their cathedral and the transfer of that property to the state.
Of course, you need not look that far. In Russia itself, religious groups (except — for now anyway — the Russian Orthodox Church) are at risk. Rounds of purported anti-extremism measures have made life difficult for them. In fact, Russian authorities have been using anti-missionary laws to crack down on several minorities, particularly Protestant Christians and Muslims. They have faced fines and targeted harassment.
Ukraine has been a different story. Mindy Belz recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “In Ukraine, non-Orthodox Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, hold equal legal standing to the Orthodox majority.” She notes that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, and high ranking government officials come from a variety of faith backgrounds.
However, that could change if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest aggression is successful. Belz points to comments by a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine suggesting that the invasion could well extend the reach of policies already being executed in Donbas and Crimea.
“That’s very bad news for anyone in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for any Tatars left from Crimea, and very bad news for evangelicals and for all Protestants living in Ukraine,” said Ambassador John Herbst.
Similarly wary for the non-Russian Orthodox in Ukraine, USCIRF’s Maenza is concerned “the many diverse faiths in Ukraine that do not conform to Russia’s narrow definition of ‘traditional religion’ now face imminent risk.”
May we continue to lift up followers of Christ ministering on the front lines of this war in Ukraine and in the crowds of refugees fleeing the conflict. Let’s pray, too, for unity in the Church and that free expression of faith would be honored in all of Ukraine, as well as Russia.
How are you praying and standing in solidarity with fellow Christians in Ukraine?
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