Humanitarian Support for South Ossetia Up-and-Running
Russian Protestant efforts and thoughts on Ossetia
M o s c o w -- Humanitarian and support visits by Russian Baptists in the desperately poor Georgian enclave of South Ossetia are up-and-running. Valentin Vasilizhenko from the Moscow headquarters of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) was among the most recent visitors. He reports a great openness for the Gospel and strong expressions of gratitude for Protestant efforts from local authorities. He was on location at the end of August to help distribute a first instalment of 200 backpacks filled with school supplies for schoolchildren. This program, which is supported strictly by Russian funding, is scheduled to deliver a total of 1.000 backpacks. Government authorities have not cricised the fact that these backpacks also contain children’s Bibles. Pastor Vasilizhenko reported that his support group was able to hold many meetings at public places. “Tropinka”, the Protestant children’s choir based in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkas, has already been called on to sing in South Ossetia.
In an event not directly related to the war, the evangelical radio station MCC in the relative Protestant stronghold of Vladikavkas was supplied with a new broadcast antenna from St. Petersburg at the end of August. It will replace a provisional antenna in use for the past decade. It is broadcasting 24-hours-per-day on 104,9 FM and can be heard in the South Ossetian enclave within Georgia proper.
One of the first Moscow Protestants to visit post-war South Ossetia was Sergei Ryahovski, Bishop of the large, loosely-structured “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith”. His lengthy report afterward was decidedly pessimistic, stating that “the people are full of hate. I saw hate in the eyes of our evangelical believers. There is hate in their souls and that is truly horrible to see.”
According to his report, the 300 Pentecostals and Charismatics of Tskhinvali cannot accept the fact that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili broke his word by initiating hostilities. In the early morning of 8 August, a heavily-populated segment of the sleeping city was attacked with rockets by Georgian forces. Ryahovski insisted that he cannot criticise evangelicals for taking up arms against Georgian forces. “They were only protecting their families, their turf, their houses. All men were under arms in Tskhinvali – they had no other choice.” Yet he also interpreted the Georgian-Ossetian war as a great defeat for Christian believers. Though Ossetians, Georgians and Russians are nominally all Orthodox peoples, they had proven themselves incapable of avoiding a military conflict.
On a somewhat different note, the Charismatic Bishop exclaimed: “Thanks to God that we have a million Georgians living with us in Russia! Many of them have retained cool heads and feel ashamed because of Saakashvili.” (The population of Georgia is only 4,6 million.)
Back in Moscow and two days after the Russian Federation officially recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia on 26 August, Sergei Ryahovski signed a declaration lauding his government’s actions. It reads in part: “Russian Protestants regard the Russian President’s recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence as a step which expresses the will of the residents of these two republics. We believe this will make it possible for a long history of suffering, the demise of innocents and territorial destruction to be brought to a close.” Co-signers of the statement were the Seventh-Day Adventist President Vassili Stolyar and the businessman Alexander Semchenko, now serving as Bishop of the 26-congregation-strong “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians”. All three signers are members of the “Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the Russian President”.
The position of the RUECB on the conflict in Georgia and Ossetia is best described by the statement “We Extend the Hand of Friendship”, which it initially published on 24 August. The RUECB, Russia's largest, unified Protestant church, represents approximately 80.000 adult members in 1.750 congregations and groups. Its President is Yuri Sipko.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 12 September 2008
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #08-42, 640 words.