Ukraine is Not Our War
Interview with the President of Russia’s Baptist Union
M o s c o w -- In an interview published by Moscow’s “Protestant” on 17 March, Aleksey Smirnov, President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists”, assured that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has caused intolerable pain within Baptist circles. Like a knife, it has “cut and severed family and civil relations while forcing everyone to make most difficult choices”. The conflict has “divided married couples, churches and the body of the brotherhood as a whole”. Suddenly, people have become “involved in heated political debates . . . and are willing to declare a holy crusade against those who think otherwise”. In view of such a crisis, “we cannot remain indifferent”.
In the interview by Andreas Patz, an émigré now living in Germany, Smirnov stressed the Biblical command to serve all. He expressed shame for those who demand that Baptists not send humanitarian aid to rebel-held eastern Ukraine: “For Christians it is abundantly clear that we must aid those who are in need.” He also described the attempt to use material aid as bait for catching converts as sectarian. We give “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, and not for the sake of any particular church. Only the Gospel may be our net.” The Gospel hasn’t changed in 2.000 years, he assured. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour. So you will fulfil the Law.”
Without mentioning Maidan by name, the President defended his Union’s statement from 30 May 2014 denying theological justification for street revolutions and palace revolts. “The devil inspires fighting, war and revolution. It is mankind’s sinful nature which rebels. It is always demanding something, it is never satisfied.” Consequently, “we are against violence, revolution and putsches“. In no case do believers incite or stir up violence against one of the parties in a conflict. Christ “never called for war against anyone”. He never appealed for violence against the corrupt Roman occupier.
Rev. Smirnov described the present war in Ukraine as “not our war” - that no war exists between the Christian fraternities in Russia and Ukraine. He insisted: “We may judge and assess issues differently, but it does not stop us from being brothers in Christ.” The President pointed repeatedly to the subjectivity of political discourse and quoted an old Russian saying: “Each person possesses his own truths (pravda), but only God possesses ultimate truth (istina).
Democracy does not appear in its pure form, he assured. “That is a utopia, nothing more than a simple claim.” In other words: Democracy appears only in degrees. The Ukrainian conflict is for believers a highly complicated affair. He stated: “It is better to pray about this matter for 15 minutes, than to talk about it for an hour.”
Politically-active Protestant forces in Kiev-run Ukraine will tend to reject such statements as one more voice from a Pacifist and sectarian past. These Ukrainians believe Christians must take an active part in public life, including the military sector. That is new for the Protestants of Eastern Europe – but a very old model for the Christian mainstream in North America.
Before the abrupt end of the Maidan stand-off in February 2014, Vyacheslav Nesteruk, at that time still president of Ukraine’s Baptist Union, had claimed that this conflict was not “our war”. I have asked Kiev Baptist leadership more than once since then whether the present conflict was still not “their war”. They failed to confirm that this was their present position.
I appreciate Rev. Smirnov’s stress on the subjectivity of human perception and cognition in the political realm. He also rejects the division of the globe into “democratic” and “non-democratic” societies. In consequence, democracy is more of a goal and intention than an absolute reality.
His rejection of all violent political change could be interpreted as a highly-immobile or passive perception of the political process. One can in response repeat the question attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Do we Christians only pick up the pieces after an accident has occurred? Pietists would counter that fervent prayer is an active, prophylactic measure capable of stopping catastrophes before they occur.
Further News: Russia Attempting to Police the Funding of Religious Organisations
In an interview published by the Russian website „Portal-Credo“ on 30 April, the barrister Anatoly Pchelintsev reported that the Russian Federation is attempting to expand its supervision of NGOs and “foreign agents” to include the foreign income of religious organisations. Pchelintsev regards the initiative as an attempt to throttle “unwelcome” or “uncomfortable” religious organisations and sees its introduction as a direct result of political developments in Ukraine. “Conditions in any case will not be getting better” for the various churches, he concluded.
At the same time, he repeated his conviction that such measures “will not seriously affect state-church relations”. The state has already been combatting unwelcome, foreign religious organisations for a quarter of a century. The increased bureaucracy such measures entail have always limited their effectiveness: “The rigidity of new regulations is compensated by their inability to be carried out.” Nearly all major religious organisations as well as most local ones receive foreign funding. According to him, such legislation also collides head-on with the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, for it remains a leading recipient of foreign funding. Applying the legislation selectively would greatly damage state credibility.
Pchelintsev is Co-Director of Moscow’s "Slavic Centre for Law and Justice" (SCLC), which has been an affiliate of the Washington/DC-based "American Center for Law and Justice" (ACLJ) since 1998. The ACLJ was founded by the Charismatic leader Pat Robertson.
German Church Delegation thanks Russia for the Soviet Victory in WW II
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, a largely Lutheran and Pentecostal delegation visited Volgograd, where World War II’s largest battle occurred. The 32-member delegation was headed by Hans-Joachim Scholz, a Lutheran pastor in Gernsbach near Karlsruhe. After placing a wreath at Volgograd’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 8 May, Scholz stated tearfully on Russia’s Channel One TV: “The victory over Nazi Germany was also a victory for us. We therefore thank you for this victory, request forgiveness and pray for God’s peace for us and all of Europe, for Russia and our children.”
One primary impression the author received from the Volgograd festivities on 9 May was the incredible unity of the Russian people in the face of foreign pressure. Nevertheless, a meeting with state and business representatives the previous day made very clear that Russian business also continues to strive for relations with German firms.
The delegation included three Israelis as well as prominent members of the Germany nobility. One of them was Dorothea Benecke, a granddaughter of General Erich von Manstein (1887-1973), a leading actor in the German war in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) region.
This group’s initial pilgrimage to Volgograd took place in 1995 and led to the founding of a Pentecostal congregation in nearby Volzhsky headed by Sergey Altukhov. The group, which is called “Act of Reconciliation”, sees peacemaking between Germans, Russians and Jews is its primary thrust. It is associated with Germany’s Charismatic renewal movement within the Evangelical church (GGE).
Commentary: Both Ukraine and Russia feel threatened
On 28 April, a largely Western and Ukrainian consultation highlighting the fate of Protestants in eastern Ukraine was held in London’s Lambeth Palace. The event was sponsored by the Didcot-based “Baptist Mission Society” and Chicago’s “Mission Eurasia” headed by Ukrainian-born Sergey Rakhuba. A similar briefing had been held in Washington’s Rayburn House on 6 February just after the country’s National Prayer Breakfast.
Prominent Ukrainian Protestants were present in London, but Russian participation was understandably weak. Russia was represented by Yuri Sipko, until 2010 President of Russia’s Baptist Union, and the barrister Katarina Smyslova, a former Baptist layperson now belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate. Neither participant possessed an official mandate from their respective churches.
A centerpiece of the London event was a photo of Sipko and Michael Panochko joining hands to pray for Ukraine. Panochko is Senior Bishop of the “All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian Churches – Pentecostals”. Yet a report in Britain’s “Christian Today” noted a real difference between participants. According to it, Tony Peck, a Brit and General-Secretary of the Amsterdam-based “European Baptist Federation”, appealed for reconciliation between the peoples of Ukraine and Russia. Yet Panochko responded that reconciliation in the midst of war was akin to “mending the roof of a house in the middle of a hurricane. Reconciliation only begins when the fire has been put out.” The Ukrainian bishop apparently also possesses a static, black-and-white understanding of truth: "There can be no peace where there is a lie." My conclusion: Assuming he is a peace-minded citizen of Russia, Sipko was probably shaking hands with the wrong party.
More than one participant dismissed the peacemaking capabilities of the hard-fought Minsk II peace accords of 12 February. “Mission Eurasia’s” Ukraine-based Mikhail Cherenkov claimed for ex.: “The Minsk agreement is not even worth the paper it is written on.”
In London, Anatoly Kaluzhny, Bishop of the “Union of Independent Evangelical Churches of Ukraine“, described Putin’s politics as “the works of the anti-Christ”. He also noted that Russia has “one of the world’s largest armies”. Which is true: A recent graph lists Russia 8th with an annual military budget of $38,3 billion. The US-budget on this graph is $661 billion – nearly half of the world’s total. Both Ukraine and Russia feel threatened.
Pro-Russian separatists are responsible for more than five deaths among Protestant workers in Eastern Ukraine and have sequestered church-owned property to house its troops and supplies. But according to “Interfax” on 18 May, nine Moscow-Patriarchate churches have also been destroyed and another 77 damaged during and after hostilities in Donbass. At least three priests have died during fighting; “dozens” of priests have fled to Russia because of death threats. In Western Ukraine, roughly 19 churches have been seized by the internationally-unrecognised Kiev Patriarchate. By the same token, property claimed by the Kiev Patriarchate in Crimea is also highly-endangered. Indeed, the Moscow Patriarchate, the largest church by far in both Ukraine and Russia, is involved in a major struggle for the control of minds and real estate in Ukraine.
On the issue of religious freedom, Charismatic and Adventist leaders are active in political organisations on both sides of the barricades. But our longing for religious tolerance will only become credible if we extend tolerance to all sides. The Western “Forum 18” has made a serious start by defending the rights for ex. of Muslims and Hare Krishna – not just our own evangelicals.
On 8 May, Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky), the head of the Moscow Patriarchate churches in Ukraine, remained seated as President Petro Poroshenko read out the names of fallen soldiers in a solemn parliamentary session. In a statement of defence afterward, Onufry warned about all attempts to “warm the fire of war. . . . It is necessary to stop the war immediately.” (Not a consensus at the London meetings.) He and several colleagues who also remained seated have been threatened with court proceedings.
After his election last August, the Metropolitan had stated that “Crimea is Ukrainian territory and must be returned to the property of the Ukrainian state” (see our release from 2.9.2014). Onufry is a genuine Ukrainian, born in the Chernovtsy region of western Ukraine in 1944. Deeply rooted in both Ukraine and Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate is probably best suited to calm the flames in both countries.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 31 May 2015
A journalistic release expressing the author's opinion. It is informational in character and does not express the sole, official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-05, 1.904 words.