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Ukraine’s religious freedom at risk, some warn

KIEV, Ukraine (BP) — Amid months-long protests that recently turned violent in Ukraine, observers are warning that hastily-imposed anti-dissent laws inadvertently threaten religious liberty and the future of Christian ministries in the Eastern European nation.

The unrest began in November when protestors began demanding the president’s resignation over accusations of corruption and a decision to strengthen ties with neighboring Russia rather than agreeing to a modernizing trade deal with the European Union.

In what is being called a crucial historical time for Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych agreed to some concessions in talks with opposition leaders Jan. 24. One of those concessions reportedly is to change the harsh anti-protest legislation, the Associated Press said.

The package of legislation suppressing political dissent was rammed through Parliament in mid-January by Yanukovych supporters, but the president agreed to revisit the action in an upcoming special legislative session.

As it is, the legislation categorizes protesting against the government as “slander,” punishable with a 15-year prison term, and it calls organizations that receive funding from outside Ukraine “foreign agents,” penalizing them with a tax, according to Mission Network News.

Michael Cherenkoff of the Kiev-based Russian Ministries likened the new laws to Stalin’s Soviet Union of 1937. Many of the Christian ministries operating in Ukraine previously operated in Russia but left because of religious freedom concerns, Mission Network News reported.

“It’s much like Russia’s laws but much worse,” Cherenkoff told Mission Network News.

Slander is not clearly defined under the new legislation, and Cherenkoff said this is “a very Soviet approach to the church [and] to society.” Usually, citizens would be given time to express their opinions about potential new laws, but in this case the president signed the legislation with no chance for discussion.

Young leaders of evangelical churches in Ukraine initiated a roundtable in Kiev Jan. 17 to discuss implications of the new laws, including how the church should react to the sudden threat of dictatorship after more than 20 years of independence, Mission Network News said.

“A final de-Sovietization of our post-USSR society and the birth of a new generation of leaders is taking place,” pastor Oleg Magdych said.

With a population of 45 million, Ukraine is experiencing tension between an older generation with loyalty to Russia and a younger generation with ties to Western influence, particularly the European Union.

“Young people are oriented to the West, to the world’s standards of life, education and democracy,” Cherenkoff said. “But our older people lean more toward the Soviet system.”

Despite the threats, the evangelical leaders agreed the church is needed in Ukraine as much as ever to provide stability in the upheaval. They declared their readiness to continue Christian ministry, Mission Network News said, adding that the group was challenged to support peaceful protesters by prayer, witnessing and practical help.

In December, Mission Network News reported that a spiritual wind was blowing throughout Kiev’s Independence Square, where protesters were camping out en masse. Cherenkoff was manning a prayer tent inside the square, and he repeatedly heard protesters call on Jesus and ask for God’s mercy.

Some protesters even asked for copies of the New Testament in the Ukrainian language, Cherenkoff said, prompting a fundraising effort by Russian Ministries that led to 100,000 copies of the Gospel of John being distributed among the protesters, Mission Network News said.

Though the majority of the protests have been peaceful, two people were killed in a clash with police Jan. 22 and protesters have seized government buildings, with some shouting “Revolution!” according to AP. Mission Network News characterized some of the protesters as “thugs trying to take advantage of a lawless situation.”

International Mission Board workers Brady and Millie Sample* serve near the area where the violence occurred.

“It’s a real mess down there,” Brady said. “Barricades every few feet with guards, tents everywhere.”

For the most part the Samples are going about their lives normally.

Brady works closely with the Ukrainian Baptist Union, the largest evangelical association of churches in the country, which is calling for members to pray for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

“They are not taking sides and not encouraging the protests,” Brady said. “They are praying for our country to turn to God.”

Many churches have set up tents in Freedom Square, about a half-mile from the center of the most recent violence, in order to pray for individuals, serve hot chocolate, hand out tracts and share the Gospel.

The president of Russian Ministries, Sergey Rakhuba, told Mission Network News in a Jan. 24 report that the organization was closing its headquarters in Kiev because of the increasing violence. “We thought we might be the target for possible provocation,” he said.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in a phone call with the Ukrainian president Jan. 23, urged an immediate de-escalation in the standoff between protesters and the government’s security forces.

Biden asked Yanukovych to meaningfully address the legitimate concerns of peaceful protesters, and he underscored that freedoms of assembly and expression are fundamental pillars of a democratic society. Biden warned that further bloodshed would have consequences for Ukraine’s relationship with the United States.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. With reporting by Nicole Lee of the International Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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