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WSJ: Russia aims to erase evangelical churches from occupied Ukraine

Aiming to reshape occupied areas, Russia cracks down on evangelical churches in occupied Ukraine, seen as instruments of US influence, while bolstering the Russian Orthodox Church.
Pastor Mykhailo Brytsyn at an evangelical Baptist church in Dubno in western Ukraine, where he has lived since fleeing Russian occupation in Melitopol. Photo: Joseph Sywenkyi/WSJ.
WSJ: Russia aims to erase evangelical churches from occupied Ukraine

Russia is engaged in a sweeping crackdown against evangelical Christian churches and religious groups in areas of Ukraine it has occupied, part of a campaign by Moscow to assert dominance over the territories and reshape them in its own authoritarian image, according to WSJ.

Ukrainian and US officials along with clergymen report that evangelical pastors have been disproportionately affected in Russian occupied areas, with dozens abducted, tortured, and forced into exile from their hometowns. In one instance, a deacon from a Pentecostal church in Kherson Oblast and his 19-year-old son were found dead in a forest in the fall of 2022 following their arrest by Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials say the Kremlin is deliberately targeting evangelical faiths, which it views as instruments of American cultural influence and opposition to Russia’s control. According to a February report by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, Russian forces have killed at least 30 Ukrainian clergymen of various faiths and held 26 captive since the invasion began.

Ukrainian officials contrast Russia’s religious repression with their country’s traditions of religious pluralism and freedom of worship. They accuse the Kremlin of reverting to Soviet-era tactics of shuttering churches and jailing clergymen.

Underground evangelicals

In the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, a pastor’s evangelical church was raided during a service by Russian troops in September 2022. The building was later taken over, adorned with murals glorifying dead Russian fighters, and converted into a culture ministry promoting pro-Moscow propaganda.

A photo of what used to be Melitopol’s evangelical Baptist church is shown on Pastor Mykhailo Brytsyn’s computer. Photo: Joseph Sywenkyi/WSJ.

You don’t run a church. You run a nest of American spies,” Russian soldiers told the evangelical pastor Mykhailo Brytsyn after interrogating him for hours.

For Brytsyn, whose century-old church was seized by the Soviet government in 1939 and again in 1946, its recent conversion into a monument to Russia’s war signifies a full return to its troubled past.

“The devil has not changed his face, or his goals,” said the pastor, now helping other evangelicals persecuted in occupied areas. “They’ve learned nothing from history.”

Some evangelical churches have continued operations by pledging allegiance to the Russians, while others, including Brytsyn’s church and those in the villages around Melitopol, meet secretly in private homes. They conceal Bibles and instruments whenever Russian patrols are suspected nearby.

“We have gone underground,” said one minister now leading secret prayer services.

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