Features

Winter at the barricades

"Winter at the barricades" Continued...

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA weighed in on Ukraine’s troubles during the State of the Union address, stating that “all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully and to have a say in their country’s future.” U.S. officials have restricted visas for Ukrainian officials involved in violence against protesters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized foreign involvement, saying Ukrainians were “capable of solving this on their own.” Yet some accuse Russia of using its flow of natural gas to Ukraine as a political bargaining tool: The Kremlin cut supply to Ukraine in the winters of 2006 and 2009.

On Jan. 30, the Kremlin announced that it was halting its touted financial aid package until a new government was formed in Ukraine, signaling growing pressure from Russia for Yanukovych to resolve the conflict without massive concessions. And EU and U.S. officials began putting together their own aid package, in an effort to counter Putin.

“There’s a real possibility that Putin could come in after the Olympics are over and quash this thing,” Eide said. “Ukraine’s a big deal, and this could go any way in the next few months.” Many Ukrainians carry bitter memories of life under Soviet rule and say they will fight the intimidation.

Protest leaders continue to press for their demands, including the resignation of President Yanukovych, the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, and free and fair presidential elections next year. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world champion boxer, has played a key role in the protests, leading to talk of a presidential bid in March 2015.

“Ukraine is not Russia,” Eide points out. “There’s a spirit here. You don’t see it very often, but it’s coming out now.”

Into the breach, Bibles

LATCHING ON: The Gospel of John distributed to thousands in Kiev.
Roman Golovanov/Russian Ministries
LATCHING ON: The Gospel of John distributed to thousands in Kiev.
When Christian leaders decided to hand out copies of the Gospel of John in Ukrainian to the thousands of people congregating in Kiev’s Independence Square, they were met with opposition: Some of the older pastors in the area believed that the protestors wouldn’t value the printed Word and would burn it in their bonfires.

They were wrong: In only a few hours’ time, the group passed out 10,000 copies to both protesters and riot police and eventually handed out 90,000 more. 

“People were grabbing them and kissing the Scripture,” Sergey Rakhuba said. “People understand that this is a critical time, and as we say in Ukraine, people are a lot closer to God when there is turmoil next door.”

Rakhuba, who grew up in the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaphorizhia, is president of Russian Ministries. He says many older pastors are against the protest movement, while younger Christians say they cannot submit to a corrupt government. During a recent roundtable gathering of local Christian leaders in Kiev, attendees agreed on a few crucial points: They condemned the violence on both sides as well as the anti-constitutional laws adopted by the government on Jan. 16. 

The Gospel of John distributed to thousands in Kiev.
Roman Golovanov/Russian Ministries
The Gospel of John distributed to thousands in Kiev.
“Some have called Ukraine the Bible Belt of the former Soviet Union,” said Mission to the World worker Jonathan Eide. “Now this country has come to the question of hope and the difficult task of separating political hope and spiritual hope.”

A large interchurch prayer tent in the heart of the protests offers answers to these questions, inviting people in for prayer, meals, and warm clothing.

Local pastors are encouraged by the openness the uprising has created but are concerned about the future of ministry in the region. “If the government were to prevail in Ukraine, it would be a huge threat to religious freedom not just in Ukraine but in the entire region,” Rakhuba said. “It would be the last nail in the ideological strategy of neighboring President Putin to grab control over the entire region.” —J.N. 

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