MARIUPOL, Ukraine (BP) — A Baptist pastor and his wife remain missing after being kidnapped Sept. 21 from their church in Russian-occupied Mariupol, Forum 18 News Service reported Oct. 6.
Armed masked men in Russian military uniforms took Council of Churches Baptist Pastor Leonid Ponomaryov and his wife Tatyana from their home in the Kalmiusky District of northern Mariupol, neighbors told Forum 18. Officials reportedly searched the home for about two and a half hours.
The Russian military also searched and sealed Ponomaryov’s church, identified as Kurchatov Street Baptist Church, and seized religious literature there, Forum 18 said, attributing reports to Mariupol Baptists.
“The neighbors distinctly heard groans and cries” as the Ponomaryovs were taken “in an unknown direction,” Mariupol Baptists told Forum 18. Church members began seeking answers the following day. “But neither then nor on subsequent days could they get any answers,” local Baptists told Forum 18.
Russian officials initially claimed the couple were involved in “extremist activities,” but it is unclear whether they have been charged with any crime. The Ponomaryovs’ children, friends and fellow pastors have been unable to determine the reason for the abduction or the couple’s whereabouts.
The couple’s children issued a statement Oct. 1 thanking the Baptist community for their prayers, as several churches were praying and fasting for the couple’s return.
“For 10 days already we know nothing about them,” Forum 18 quoted the statement. “A group of church members from Mariupol and Rostov went (around) all the agencies and institutions, not only in Mariupol but in the regional center [Donetsk], and were told nothing about our parents anywhere.”
While Russian officials have not responded to Forum 18’s requests for information, reportedly an officer of the Russian Interior Ministry told relatives the couple would be released after the Sept. 27 Russian-controlled referendums to annex Donetsk and three other Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine. The Sept. 27 referendums were illegal under Ukrainian and international law and have not by officially recognized by the U.S. and the international community.
Russia has officially occupied Mariupol since May in the war Russia launched on Ukraine in February. Russia has sealed many churches and confiscated equipment.
But despite the referendum and the forced closure of some Christian churches, other congregations, including at least two Council of Churches Baptist congregations, are still able to hold Sunday worship services.
Forum 18 described the Council of Churches Baptist congregations as unregistered churches in Ukraine that meet in property owned by one or two church members.