Eurasia Political Update
The past few months in Eurasia have seen democratic protests in Moldova, unprecedented unity in the evangelical church in Russia in evangelism during the World Cup, while prosecutions under the restrictive Yarovaya law continue. Also continuing are the conflict in Ukraine and religious persecution in Central Asia.
Russia and Ukraine
One encouraging example of religious freedom, interdenominational unity, and Christian impact in society was a Bible Read-A-Thon held in Kiev this summer. Over a three-day period, hundreds of people, representing churches of various denominations and confessions, members of Parliament and a number of different organizations took turns reading the entire Bible out loud around the clock on a central square, in between two of the most significant Orthodox churches in Kiev.
Another positive example of interdenominational unity was the outreach held during the World Cup in Russia, in which 400 evangelical churches in over 50 cities distributed 600,000 pieces of Scripture which will impact millions. These churches, unafraid of the restrictive anti-missionary laws passed in 2016 in Russia, known as the Yarovaya Package, boldly organized fan zones with viewing parties for matches, games, activities, and more. They also carried out evangelism and Scripture distribution on the streets, including a flash mob in the middle of the Red Square in Moscow! There were a few instances of police questioning the young believers on the streets, however, in the handful of cases where they pressed charges, the charges were eventually dropped. Our outreach was covered by Fox News, Christianity Today, CBN, and the Eric Metaxas radio show, to name a few.
Despite the encouraging results of the World Cup outreach in Russia, there have been many stories of individuals facing questioning and fines for things as innocuous as inviting others to a Christian event or for a social media post. One African student in Nizhny Novgorod was deported for illegal missionary activity after sharing a video on social media inviting her fellow students to an African cultural evening at her local church. Churches and denominations are fighting back and, in some cases, have been able to get charges dismissed and rulings overturned. “The issue here isn’t the fine ($73) – it would be easier to pay it and forget the whole incident – but the fact that it perpetuates a situation in which more and more believers are being prosecuted,” said Vladimir Ozolin, head of the Christians of Evangelical Faith (CEF) denomination’s legal department, commenting on a case in Novokuibyshevsk, where a fine for posting a testimony to YouTube was dismissed for wrongful prosecution. “We need to defend our rights as believers, which is why CEF has a team of lawyers to assist with this.” The laws’ impact on believers’ activities depends on how zealous local authorities choose to be in enforcing the laws. For instance, while visits to prisons by Protestant clergy were officially banned on a national level in 2015, some churches who had a good relationship with local authorities have been able to quietly continue their prison ministries.
The conflict in Ukraine continues, with about 10,300 people killed in the four-year conflict. On August 31, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the separatist-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), was killed by a bomb while eating in a cafe in Donetsk. Russian and Ukrainian leaders are trading blame for the incident. A successor has yet to be named, and time will tell whether a change in leadership will bring about any change in the situation, as most believe that the leader is merely a puppet of Moscow.
Both the DPR and neighboring separatist-controlled Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) have experienced severe violations of religious freedom in recent months. Evangelical churches have faced persecution in separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2014, including raids, fines, and seizure of property. However, in July the leadership of the separatist-controlled Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) took the additional step of labeling the Baptist Union an extremist organization and banning the activities of Baptist churches completely. This move has been widely condemned by Christian and human rights organizations, as it sets a dangerous precedent. As a sign of solidarity, the Russian Baptist Union sent a letter to the head of the LPR requesting that the decision be rescinded.
Earlier in July, New Life Church in separatist-controlled Makeyevka, Ukraine, had its building seized by armed representatives of the separatist government. Over 700 people have received spiritual and physical help over the last four years of war. The church has fed the hungry and distributed clothing and shoes to those in need, while every Sunday they have had the opportunity to hear God’s Word. Many have repented and have given their lives to Christ, and some are preparing for baptism. Other churches in the region are aware that despite the fact that they are stepping in and providing a critical role in society, fulfilling needs that the government is unable to fulfill, authorities may raid meetings, question churchgoers, seize property, and more at any moment.
Illustrative of the deep divide that the current conflict has caused between Ukraine and Russia, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had until now been under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, has requested independence. Bartholomew, the Bishop of Constantinople, is considering whether to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s request for autocephaly. Because of how closely the Russian Orthodox Church is tied to the Russian state, this move would have enormous political ramifications, dealing a severe blow to Russia’s bid to control Ukraine.
The situation in Central Asia remains difficult with varying degrees of persecution from country to country. We received a report from a sensitive region of Uzbekistan, bordering on Afghanistan, where dozens of churches have closed in the last decade due to the high number of pastors and church leaders who have had to flee persecution, and the fear of the remaining believers. Encouragingly, however, a School Without Walls (SWW) graduate moved as a missionary to a town with no church, and by meeting with and encouraging believers, and building strong relationships with non-believers, he was able to start a SWW group and a Bible study and start the process of rebuilding the church in the area.
Turkmenistan is one of the most restricted and challenging countries in which we work. Turkmenistan is facing severe and growing food shortages, along with an unemployment rate of 50%. Citizens are being forced to show passports in order to purchase food staples such as flour and milk, which are running low and being rationed. The problem will likely intensify until the new harvest later this summer. Turkmenistan is also one of the most restricted countries in the world for Christians.
The Parliament of Kazakhstan is planning to adopt a new religion law (the Upper House has already adopted it) that will impose even more restrictions on religious freedom. Over the years these types of laws have been proposed many times, but have always been rejected either by one of the houses of Parliament or by the President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the state-owned mass media has launched an anti-church/anti-missionary propaganda campaign. Additionally, several pastors who have endured persecution for many years have been forced to flee the country after their families received serious threats.
Moldova has had a tumultuous summer. After the pro-Western candidate was elected mayor of the capital city of Chisinau, the supreme court ruled the election results invalid due to a video the candidate posted on his Facebook page on election day urging Moldovans to vote. The court ruling led to mass protests at the end of June. Following massive anti-corruption protests in neighboring Romania in mid-August, similar protests followed in Chisinau, calling for an end to corruption, for the June election results to be reinstated, and for Moldova to join Romania. Just as Moldova is divided linguistically between Russian and Romanian, so also the country is divided politically, with part of the country wanting to enter the EU or even join Romania, while another significant portion of the country preferring to cast its lot with Russia. Parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall should reveal more about which direction the country is moving in.
Dozens of independent journalists were arrested in Belarus earlier this summer for allegedly illegally accessing a government news website. Belarus ranks 155th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Of those arrested, most have been released though many were fined and some still remain imprisoned. The lack of freedom of the press in Belarus confirms Belarus’ reputation as “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Long-time President Alexander Lukashenka replaced the Prime Minister and several ministers in early August, saying that they failed to obey his instructions. He claimed that he made the abrupt decision in consultation with “civil society.” The church in Belarus faces some repression from the government – Church Without Walls, pastored by our national SWW coordinator in Belarus – spent years jumping through hoops trying to obtain government registration and finally succeeded a few months ago. Last year Belarus celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Belarusian Bible, and later this month an exhibition of ancient Biblical manuscripts will be visiting the Belarus National Library. These types of events, garnering national attention in this Orthodox nation, give believers excellent opportunities to share the gospel with their friends, classmates, coworkers, and neighbors.
Regarding the potential split between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches:
A story that is illustrative of the challenges faced by believers in Central Asia:
An examination of how things have and haven’t changed since the death of long-time dictatorial ruler Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan last year:
Interesting articles on the situation in Russia:
Russia, Belarus, and Turkmenistan are among the worst offenders worldwide for human trafficking, and several other Eurasian countries are not far behind:
A report with more details on threats to religious freedom in Kazakhstan:
An overview of press coverage of the World Cup outreach in Russia: