Protestants driven underground like in Soviet times in Russian proxy Donbas ‘republics’
It was five years on 8 June since the abduction and murder of four members of an Evangelical Church in occupied Sloviansk. Although the methods have changed since 2014, the basic policy of terror and persecution in the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics ‘ [DPR, LPR] has not, and believers are increasingly forced underground. Pastor Sergei Kosyak, who experienced persecution and torture first hand points out that, under Kremlin control, there is a clear strategy of crushing the Protestant movement on occupied territory, as well as any Church movement besides the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate. In interviews to Vostochny Variant, Hromadske Radio and Donbas.Realii, he has provided important insight as to the general policies of these Russian-controlled formations, as well as how the situation in the two ‘republics’ differ.
The initial lawlessness after former Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin and his men seized control of Sloviansk and the emergence of the two supposed ‘republics’ was typified by the seizure during a Trinity Day service on 8 June 2014 of four members of the Evangelical Church of the Transfiguration in Sloviansk. The two sons of Pastor Oleksandr Pavenko – Reuben and Albert, and two deacons of the church Viktor Bradarsky and Volodymyr Velichko were killed, probably even before attempts were made to extract ‘ransom’ from the Pastor, with their bodies found in a mass grave after Girkin and the militants fled Sloviansk in early July that year. While it is tempting to assume that the terror against all faiths except the Moscow Patriarchate was imported to Donbas by the supposedly ‘Orthodox’ fighters from Russia, Kosiak says that the killers of the four members of the Church were, in fact, locals who were, in part, driven by jealousy of the Pastor and his family who were quite well-off.
Although Ukraine’s Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly denied any engagement in the conflict in Donbas, a 2015 study entitled ‘When God becomes the weapon’ suggested that at least individuals within that Church actively supported the militants. The study also presented considerable evidence of religious persecution, effectively of all faiths except the Russian Church, by militants involved in the fighting. It pointed, as well, to the major role played by Russia and its armed ‘Russian world ‘crusaders’, fighting under the banners of the Russian Orthodox Army and the Cossack Army in crimes against humanity in the region.
While the policy, under Russian control, of destroying any Church movements outside the Moscow Patriarchate, has remained the same, the methods have changed. As Kosyak puts it, “they can no longer act as aggressively and openly as they did in 2014-2015, when everything was decided through machine guns”, and when they just seized churches without particularly worrying about giving reasons.
The Russian proxy ‘republics’ increasingly saw the need to play at being ‘states’ and to pretend to abide by laws.
While both LPR and DPR followed Russian-occupied Crimea in demanding that religious communities ‘re-register’, what happened next has differed significantly in the two entities.
In DPR, around 90% of those who applied to re-register, were able to. Kosyak stresses that this does not necessarily mean that the overall situation is significantly better, just that there is a person involved in the ‘registration’ process who is more kindly disposed to Protestant churches.
This was also the case in LPR under Igor Plotnytsky who had once even served in a Protestant church. It is radically different now, however, with virtually none of the organizations who lodged applications, receiving ‘registration’. Nor is that the end of their problems since the so-called ‘LPR ministry of state security’ gained a database of people who, they think, pose a threat to them, and are now using it to question people, their work colleagues or neighbours.
There are now constant checks and ‘purges’, with the last Sunday in May having seen about 17 supposed checks. In fact, Kosyak says, these could be better called raids, with masked men in camouflage gear turning up, stopping religious services and examining a community’s papers.
This has resulted in believers in ‘LPR’ effectively going underground, like in Soviet times. They constantly have to change the time and place where they meet, but the pastors and the churches themselves are still subjected to persecution. Protestants have been driven into a state of permanent stress and fear. A pastor recently told Kosyak that he is permanently afraid and has the sense that he is under surveillance.
While the situation is better in ‘DPR’, there have also been seizures of Protestant property there too. As Kosyak says, this is the policy of these ‘republics’ to drive Protestants from this territory, or so drive them underground that they don’t raise their heads.
Sometimes it’s simply a banal question of money – if you have money, you must have donors, the militants assume. “That means that the Americans are giving you money and if it’s the Americans, that’s it, you’ve automatically become a spying. And you have to share the money.”
Sometimes, if clergy or a particular community remain firm under massive pressure, they simply seize their property, finding some pretext or other.
They make money in other ways as well. In LPR, a person will be fined 10 thousand roubles for “unlawfully holding a religious service”. If it’s repeated, you can end up with a huge fine of 200 thousand roubles.
If that doesn’t work, they plant supposedly ‘extremist’ literature in order to ‘find’ it and arrest the pastor or members of the congregation.
Kosyak points out that all of this is the same as in the USSR. The threats, the intimidation and the use of planted material to threaten or actually lay ‘criminal’ charges of involvement in an ‘extremist’ organization also, unfortunately differ very little from the situation for very many believers in today’s Russia. Both proxy ‘republics’ are now following Russia in persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses, in another tragic repetition of Soviet persecution.
Many prominent religious figures, including Sergei Kosyak, Aleksandr Khomchenko and the Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine, Said Ismagilov, were forced into exile back in 2014. This was after Kosyak and Khomchenko had been subjected to terrible torture. Said Ismagilov recalled after Father Aleksandr’s tragically early death that the latter had made a point of coming to him the moment he was released from days of torture to warn Ismagilov that he was to be next. They were among many who faced persecution, at least in part, for their involvement in the Prayer Marathon in the centre of Donetsk. This was doubtless one of the reasons why the militants came for Ihor Kozlovskyy, a world-renowned religious scholar in January 2016. He had remained in Donetsk because of his paralyzed son, and was to spend almost two years in DPR imprisonment before finally being released in the last main exchange of prisoners on 27 December 2017.
Why do others stay now?, Kosyak was asked. Some cannot endure the terror and leave, he says, however many believers remain, viewing this persecution as suffering for Christ and as part of their faith.