Our Woes in Russia and Ukraine

Tough Love is Needed


Striving for a happier 2016




Smolensk -- One indeed can speak of a new spirit of inter-confessional relations between the Christian denominations within Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainian thinkers such as the Baptist Mikhail Cherenkov have long celebrated this development. But that “spirit” is driven at least in part by the presence of a common enemy – not necessarily by the Holy Spirit. Recent examples:


On 7 December, Gennady Mokhnenko, a well-known Pentecostal-Charismatic pastor in the frontline city of Mariupol, belonged to the group of military chaplains awarded a medal by Filaret, patriarch of the internationally still un-recognized “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate”. Mokhnenko, who frequently appears in military camouflage, has approved a possible murder of Putin, etc. (See his Facebook page and our report from 2 July 2015.) At the same time, relations between (West) Ukrainian Protestants and the country’s largest denomination, the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate”, remain rock-bottom.


Officially Orthodox, Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia until 2013 and currently governor of Ukraine`s Odessa province, was a celebrated speaker at Willow Creek’s “Global Leadership Summit” in Kiev on 10 December. (Four days later, Saakashvili was involved in a bitter verbal - and watery - slugfest with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.) Ukraine’s Protestants are supporting Saakashvili and Poroshenko in their struggle against Avakov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.


Mokhnenko also belonged to the speakers at this summit. In this context, Yuri Sipko of Moscow, one-time president of Russia’s Baptist Union, sent him a hearty greeting. (See Mokhnenko’s Facebook page of 9 December.) Sipko toured Ukraine recently and made many appearances.


In Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate tended to side with the Baptists after their split with the country’s Pentecostals and Charismatics in late September. (See our report from 7 October.) Nevertheless, the Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion hosted Sergey Ryakhovsky, head bishop of the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), for a lengthy television interview on “Russia 24” on 19 December. A session of the Moscow Patriarchate-led „Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics“ (CIAC) scheduled for 1 March in Minsk still reckons with Russian Baptist and Pentecostal participation.


Gratefully, the unexpected and humorous still occur. A pre-war (2013) film by the US-American Steve Hoover on Gennady Mokhnenko’s remarkable efforts to salvage the lives of Ukraine’s orphans was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg theatres from 12 to 14 December. The award-winning documentary is entitled “Crocodile Gennadiy”.


On another note, Pavel Shidlovsky. Belarus’ ambassador to the USA, named the Russian Mikhail Morgulis, a Pentecostal who immigrated to the USA in 1977, honorary Belarusian consul for Florida. The ceremonies took place on 12 December in Sarasota and North Port/Florida, home of Morgulis’ centre for “Spiritual Diplomacy”. His centre’s self-description sounds grandiose: “Spiritual Diplomacy - a New Road to World Peace”. But this 1941-born globe-trotter must be a prime example of the Charismatic movement’s agility and ability to build bridges. In recent years, Minsk’s Charismatic “New Life” congregation has attempted the exact opposite: a highly confrontational policy vis-à-vis the Belarusian state.


Back to the daily grind

Not infrequently, well-meaning Ukrainian evangelicals express pity for their Russian sisters and brothers falling prey to the onslaughts of Russian state media. One of numerous Ukrainian letters written in this vein states: “How do we dialogue with the Christians of Russia who either acquiesce to Russia’s aggression or even contribute to the propaganda that accompanies this aggression?” Why have we allowed our brothers and sisters “to succumb to the influence of aggressive propaganda?”


But is it correct that “propaganda” is emanating strictly from the Russian corner? In his address before Kiev’s “Rada” on 8 December, US Vice-President Joe Biden assured: “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. Sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances. Period.” The listeners responded with applause – though a gasp would have been a more appropriate response. At least since the war against Spain of 1898, the USA has spent billions of dollars creating and defending a sphere of influence reaching from Mexico and Chile to the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the Middle East. Apparently, the leading politicians of the country into which I was born have no antenna for the dangers of a double standard.


I am worried that (West) Ukrainian Protestants do not recognise a fascist danger within their own country. On 20 December, Right Sector and the Azov Battalion held a rally with 5.000 participants in Mariupol featuring a torchlight parade and fascist, Nazi-era symbols. Yet a leading Ukrainian Baptist assured me last April that Putin was the only fascist in the entire Ukrainian-Russian debate. And what do these dangers within Russia look like? We need to begin by defining precisely what fascism is. I am profoundly weary of the propagandist usage of terms like “fascist” and “terrorist” on all sides. Is the Russian Alexander Dugin a “fascist”? Choose a definition, then read his texts and decide for yourself.


Avowed Christians on both sides of the Ukraine conflict have proclaimed their war to be a holy one. Orthodox on both sides of the barricades have literally blessed weaponry. Sadly, the Old Testament paradigm of the holy war leaves plenty of space for the glorification of war. See for example the Facebook page of this Ukrainian Pentecostal lay minister: “https://www.facebook.com/vladimir.dubovoy?fref=ts”. Dubovoy’s entry from 22 December has Santa looking for goodies in a weapons shop.


We are all endangered by propaganda and the temptation to hate. I too belong to the endangered.


We must also be wary of false terminology. I have heard or read numerous examples of Russian Protestants going to “West”-Ukraine to visit their brothers and sisters in the faith – in Slaviansk for ex. According to the reports, these meetings ended with the Russians apologising for the misdeeds of their government, their tearful pleas for forgiveness being granted by the Ukrainian side. This change of opinion needs to be respected, if it is sincere. But labelling such steps “reconciliation” is a misuse of terminology. Forsaking the flag, crossing the barricades and joining the other side, is not “reconciliation”. We would all agree that forsaking the Red Army and joining the German army during WW II – or vice versa – was not a statement of reconciliation.


In the Ukrainian context, tough love is needed. Alexey Smirnov, president of Russia’s Baptist Union, alluded to this in an interview published on 17 March. He stated: “We may judge and assess issues differently, but it does not stop us from being brothers in Christ.” Smirnov 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).” (See our release from 31 May 2015.) One can accept as legitimate the concerns of one’s own country while simultaneously reaching the hand of friendship to believers on the other side. Here one accepts without demonization the fact that evangelical Christians will never be of one mind on most major political issues. But this should never stop anyone from striving passionately for peace.


Wishing you a more peaceful 2016.


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Archpriest Chaplin sacked


On 24 December Kirill, Patriarch of the Moscow Patriarchate, terminated Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, his well-known, long-time church diplomat. Chaplin has been accusing his church of timidity in its relations with the government: “We need to speak prophetically and not look back fearfully every time we speak.” He also told the “Interfax” news agency, that the church “should not be smiling at and embracing someone known to be corrupt”. After his release, Chaplin added that he had repeatedly criticised Vladimir Putin because of his indecision on Donbass. Chaplin has supported the concept of “Rus”, a kind of Russian super state.


Chaplin, who can be described as a conservative nationalist, remains prior of a leading Moscow church.


Vsevolod Chaplin was also criticised within Russia for describing the “war against terror“ in Syria as a holy war on the terms of a medieval crusader. He even called for the usage of nuclear weaponry.


Articles from Jacob Dreizin, a Washington-based critic of US foreign policy, are worthy of reading in the Syrian context. (See for ex.: „russia-insider.com/en/curb-your-enthusiasm-russia-not-winning-syria/ri11485” and “russia-insider.com/en/curb-your-enthusiasm-part-2-russia-still-not-winning-syria/ri12018”.) On 27 November, Dreizin wrote: The Russian claim that “’ we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here’ is pure fantasy imported from America”. “It pains me to see wise Russia parroting failed Bush-era mantras straight out of Fox News. For a country that is intellectually head-and-shoulders over the US, . . . it is certainly a new low. Russia should have stayed home. Now it is in a hopeless situation rolling downhill at dizzying speed. I’m almost afraid to open my eyes.”


He added on 26 December: “I believe the case for Russian involvement is . . . a perfect mirror image of the disease that plagues Washington D.C.” Yet only the US economy is big enough to survive economic debacles.


My commentary: The danger of terrorism cannot be eliminated by the elimination of „terrorists“. A mathematical solution such as attrition is rarely successful – see for ex. Vietnam. Diplomacy and a resolution of the social and economic needs would offer a more promising perspective. There are Russian politicians who claim their foreign ministry is counting above all on diplomacy. That is a source of some comfort for me. I think it defensible that Russia is counting on Assad, virtually the last secular and multi-confessional oriented head-of-state in the Middle East. Dreizin does not address this aspect here.


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William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 28 December 2015


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-12.