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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine—Signs of death and destruction dot this eastern Ukraine city. A psychiatric hospital lies in ruins. The church-run orphanage is slowly repairing its damaged facility. A church across town mourns the tragic murder of four of its leaders at the hands of insurgents who kidnapped the men after a Sunday church service.
It’s been a hard half-year here. Last April, Russian-backed separatists pulled into the courtyard of Good News Church and aimed their weapons at the building, sending pastor Peter Dudnik and dozens of church volunteers running for safety. The troops vainly searched for materials tying the church to radical elements in the country, but the church had no political ties. Two weeks later, separatist forces drove their tanks onto the church grounds and took over the building. Many locals decided it was time to move out of the city.
“There was a serious war here. Shells were falling on the ground, and there were explosions, bombs, and bullets flying around. It was panic,” Dudnik said through a translator. Russian Orthodox priests even took part. “There is a video on YouTube,” Dudnik said, pulling out his phone and pulling up a video showing two priests saying a blessing over tanks firing at Ukrainian military targets from the church grounds and claiming the building as their own.
The separatists occupied Slovyansk, a city of 127,000 persons, for three months. When Ukrainian forces freed the city, Dudnik—father of two biological and six adopted children, and founder of a successful movement to encourage adoption among Ukrainians—returned home and found three truckloads of weapons and ammunition left in the church basement.
Fewer than 50 miles away, Russian-backed separatists are still in control and thousands of Ukrainians have fled for safety. As cold weather comes, the task of finding winter-ready housing for them grows more urgent by the day. Since the cash-strapped Ukrainian government lacks resources, churches have stepped up to repair embattled towns and meet the needs of Ukraine’s internally displaced people.
When I arrived in Slovyansk in early October, Ukrainian forces were visible throughout the region—guarding the train station, patrolling the outskirts of town, eating at a local pizza joint, and manning the numerous checkpoints on the way to refugee camps. Soldiers usually waved us through when they saw the “Good News Church” sign on the dashboard of our van.
Dudnik’s church vans have been busy. After the separatists left Slovyansk on July 5 and moved their base to nearby Gorlovka, thousands of residents of that city asked for help to flee. Volunteers from Slovyansk set up a once-a-day shuttle service, using five church vans to pick up residents at a meeting place near Gorlovka and take them to temporary housing—often in unwinterized summer camps. The venture was risky: Separatists arrested three drivers (later releasing them) and confiscated four vans.
Since they began, Dudnik’s volunteers have shuttled nearly 3,500 persons to safety, distributed about 20,000 packages of food, and repaired 100 roofs damaged by mortar rockets. Their efforts have made Dudnik a national hero and gained the attention of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
But as winter approaches, the volunteers face a new problem: The summer camps lack central heating, a dire circumstance since Moscow cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in June, and reserves will carry the country only halfway through the winter months.
At one camp I visited, church volunteers were working past sunset to make buildings winter-ready, but some rooms even lacked floors, making it apparent that the facility would not be ready for cold weather.
IN ANOTHER EASTERN UKRAINE CITY, Dobropillia, volunteers from the nearby Word of Life Church were refurbishing an old Soviet-era building. Despite peeling paint, crumbling steps, and haphazardly repaired windows, 26 refugees had already moved in. The church hopes to house around 100 refugees once a furnace is in place.
In one barren room, Nadejda Valik sat on a bed with her 5-year-old granddaughter Inessa, a shy redhead with bright blue eyes. Valik began to cry as she told her story: “There was shooting. There was war in my village and we had to flee.” She said her granddaughter daily asks when they can go home.
Valik hesitated when asked what happened to her house, fearing she could put her family at risk if her words got back to insurgents. “My house is not damaged but has been taken over by the separatists,” she said. Valik is happy to be alive. More than 3,600 persons have died since the conflict broke out six months ago—331 of them in fighting since a Sept. 5 cease-fire.
Word of Life pastor Vadim Bero uses church-based volunteer laborers and any donations they can gather. He has lofty visions for the structure next door: With funding from Mission Eurasia, formerly known as Russian Ministries, the church is building a factory for prefab homes that will both create jobs for refugees and supply houses for as many as 100 families per year.
“The church is the most trusted entity that can channel resources in Ukraine,” Mission Eurasia president Sergey Rakhuba said. With corruption still rampant in government agencies, international aid seldom reaches those in need. Rakhuba’s organization is one of the ministries trying to bridge the gap by delivering food packages to refugees, helping fund projects, and offering counseling training to pastors across the country.
THE UNITED NATIONS ESTIMATES that more than 1 million persons have been uprooted from eastern Ukraine, creating the potential for an economic and humanitarian crisis. Some of those people have moved west. In a shelter run by a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the village of Kotsubinskoe, about 10 miles from Kiev, 50 persons sleep in a room full of bunk beds where any illness spreads rapidly and crying children keep others awake.
“When we received our first 47 people, I was concerned about how to feed them and take care of them,” said Nikolay Ilnitsky, the priest who runs the facility. He added with a chuckle, “Now that we have 170, I believe in God.” The living quarters are cramped, but the facility is well-run and the requirements for staying there are clear: “We find shelter so you need to find jobs,” Ilnitsky tells the men.
Pointing out the facility’s chapel, Ilnitsky explains that all denominations are welcome—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. This is in stark contrast to the new order in occupied east Ukraine where the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is the only authorized religious entity. At least 27 churches have been confiscated there, and non-ROC religious institutions are now required to undertake a rigorous registration process in Russian-annexed Crimea.
Ukraine’s Institute for Religious Freedom says Russian separatists often accuse evangelicals of being spies and American agents. That’s what happened to pastor Sergey Kosyak last spring when he helped launch a daily “prayer tent” gathering in Donetsk (see “Putin’s playbook,” May 17, 2014). In May, they arrested and beat him, accusing him of being a spy before releasing him five hours later.
Those were the early days of the war, but the dynamics have changed since more radical separatists have moved into Donetsk and placed a $20,000 reward on his head. The prayer gatherings reached 217 consecutive days on Oct. 9, Kosyak said; but the movement is now underground, and he had to leave his home in early October.
Kosyak said three-quarters of the non-Orthodox churches in the separatist-occupied regions have closed, yet remaining church members are quietly going door to door to find out who needs medicine, food, and clothing and networking with churches outside the war zone to get needed supplies. “There’s a price, of course, for everything,” Kosyak said: He’s only seen his 6-month-old son for two weeks since he was born, but he’s never until now “seen in Ukraine when God has revealed the true faith of people.”
ONE 41-YEAR-OLD father of three, ethnically Russian but loyal to Ukraine, spoke with me only on condition that I agree not to use his real name because he fears retribution. When “Vitaly Nazarenko” received word that separatists were retreating from Slovyansk and preparing to set up base in his hometown of Gorlovka, he and family members packed four suitcases, locked their apartment, and went on vacation to Kiev.
They would have preferred a trip to Crimea—which is like going to California if you’re from Nebraska, he added—but Russian annexation of the peninsula has put an end to their yearly tradition. Just weeks after they left home, one of his son’s classmates was killed when a mortar rocket struck her yard while she was gardening with her grandmother.
Nazarenko’s situation is undeniably better than most—he has a small but pleasant apartment in a posh neighborhood and a job that followed him—but he mourns the potential loss of his home and the state of uncertainty that grips his family. “This is a big time of soul searching for me,” he said.
That soul searching is going on throughout Ukraine. As churches do what they can to prepare for winter’s bite, local pastors say these are the greatest opportunities to show the love of Christ. “People have a totally different perception of our church,” Dudnik said. “Our service is full of new faces.”
‘He’s lying to God’
Ukrainians are increasingly fed up with the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukrainian affairs and Moscow’s proxy war in the east. Russian leaders have denied sending weapons and troops to eastern Ukraine, but mounting evidence proves otherwise. Although Western-backed sanctions are beginning to take a toll on the Russian economy, some Ukrainian leaders worry that the bite is not enough to make Russian President Vladimir Putin back away.
Patriarch Filaret is one such leader. He’s head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, which split from the ROC after the fall of the Soviet Union. He warns that “Putin is going the same way Hitler did,” and says the time to stop Putin is “right now while he’s not that strong. If Europe and America will not stop him, they had better be prepared for the third world war.”
Putin enjoys an 84 percent approval rating in Russia, and some Western conservatives praise him as the “protector of Christendom” and traditional values (see “Putin’s playbook,” May 17, 2014). Filaret asks how this can be true since the Russian leader and his followers are closing the doors of eastern Ukrainian churches that actively promote traditional families.
Filaret told me, “When Putin says he’s protecting values, he’s not protecting family values. He’s lying to God. And that’s one more reason he’s the devil.” The patriarch recently said Putin is like Cain, the biblical character who killed his brother “under the action of Satan.”
Filaret explained why he made such a strong statement about Vladimir Putin: “If I would say it softly, no one would hear me. If I say the naked truth, everybody will hear, and first of all Putin will hear me. And I think he heard me.” —J.N.