Is the New Ukrainian President a Cause for Hope?
Evangelicals are Divided on Zelensky
M o s c o w -- Since the inauguration of the youthful Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukraine´s president on 20 May, the icy relationship between the evangelicals of Russia and Ukraine is melting slightly at the edges. In a significant breakthrough, Sergey Ryakhovsky, head bishop of Russia’s “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), appeared on the Youtube channel of Sergey Demidovich on 25 July. Demidovich, a well-known Pentecostal pastor and talk-show host in the front-line city of Slaviansk, is known as a relative hardliner on the matter of Ukrainian war and peace.
Six days later, Ryakhovsky dialogued live a second time on a social network, this time with Vitaly Vozniuk, a Pentecostal bishop in Kiev. According to Vozniuk, Christians should be “the first to offer their hands to each other in difficult times”. Echoing the Russian perspective, he added that “the church should be heeding its calling – not politics”. Immediately after the presidential inauguration in May, Russia’s ROSKhVE had formed a special working group with the intent of “restoring relations between the evangelical churches of Russia and Ukraine”.
After meeting with Zelensky on 30 September, the Pentecostal Peter Dudnik, a leading humanitarian worker in Slaviansk, reported warmly on Facebook about the new president. The occasion was a reception held by Zelensky on the national day for orphans. Conspicuous by his absence was the politically militant pastor Gennady Mokhnenko, Ukraine’s best-known champion of the pro-orphan movement. The Baptist politician Pavlo (or Pavel) Unguryan, known for his work on family and social issues, also chose not to attend.
Obviously, the signals on peace remain mixed. Ukraine’s pro-Western evangelicals strongly supported the defeated Petro Poroshenko. Consequently, they have been spotted marching in rallies opposing the “Steinmeier Formula” as proposed by the current German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This paper, which opens up the possibility of a reunited-but-federalized Ukraine, was signed by Zelensky on 1 October. Along with Mokhnenko, Pentecostal pastor Alexander Boychenko (Odessa) and Antila Pilgrimov (Minsk/Belarus), remain evangelical opponents of Zelensky’s attempts at a negotiated peace settlement on Eastern Ukraine.
On Facebook, the hardliner Pilgrimov compared Poroshenko’s landslide defeat with the populace of Keila in 1. Samuel 23. Though David had saved the city from the Philistine enemy, its citizens later vouched for King Saul at the expense of the city´s defender. In the same sense, Ukrainians had voted down their nation’s saviour: Petro Poroshenko. Though Poroshenko had rebuilt the Ukrainian army and protected the nation from the “Russian-Orthodox invader”, the nation’s voters had thanked and betrayed the nation’s top soldier by voting a TV comedian into office.
Elsewhere, Pilgrimov prophesized that the pro-Zelensky, “Russian-speaking (Ukrainian) parliamentarians sporting fake diplomas from the Lubyanka” (Stalinist prison) will in time be liquidated or driven underground in Rostov-on-Don (Russia).
Sadly, the Russian-Ukrainian Baptist academic Michael Cherenkov (bzw. Cherenkoff) is not aboard the peace train. On Facebook on 23 November, he repeated the highly-disputed claim that “millions of our people were slowly, quietly and ruthlessly starved to death for simply being Ukrainian. Holodomor, a genocide concealed by Soviet Russia, is a reminder to the world that such horrors should never be repeated." This statement was coupled with an eulogy for a recently-fallen Ukrainian fighter. Presently residing in the USA, this Russian-born Baptist is strongly active among the once-pacifist Mennonite-Brethren of Kansas.
The author’s comment: Such statements are only one indication that Zelensky’s nearly insurmountable task will consist of bringing his country’s radical nationalists to heel. Without that, the chances of peace in Eastern Ukraine remain dim. A negotiated settlement remains the only conceivable solution.
Activist evangelicals such as Pilgrimov, Mokhnenko and Demidovich continue to have an impressive following among social networks in Ukraine and Belarus as well as in the North American and German diaspora. All three have roughly 5.000 friends on Facebook; Demidovich has 16.439 followers there and Mokhnenko slightly over 25.000.
Though having hosted Sergey Ryakhovsky on his talk show, Sergey Demidovich has privately expressed little interest in dialogue with the Russian bishop. A much more acceptable negotiator for the Ukrainian side would be the Russian Baptist Yuri Sipko. Yet Sipko, thanks to his pro-Kiev take on events, has little traction in Russia.
A helpful English-language source on the affairs of Ukrainian Orthodoxy is Nikolai Petro, a professor at the University of Rhode Island. Despite the creation of a “unified” Orthodox church with the blessing of Constantinople in December 2018, the majority of congregations in Ukraine remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. See “https://www.npetro.net/7.html”.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 4 December 2019
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 #19-10, 735 words.