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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)-- Ukraine's new president has ordered security officials to create a corridor for safe passage for thousands of civilians fleeing war-torn eastern regions, including non-Russian Orthodox Christians who have reported intimidation by pro-Russian separatists.
Petro Poroshenko also pledged to end fighting between pro-Russian rebels and government forces, in which some 200 people died, among them 59 servicemen.
He spoke while thousands of refugees tried to seek shelter, including non-Russian Orthodox Christians and other groups, who say they are persecuted in both eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
In one of the latest known incidents, about 25 armed men, wearing Balaclava masks, seized the Central Church of Christ (CCC) and "a ministry training school" in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlovka during Sunday morning worship on May 25, Christians said.
The Protestant church was meeting in an art museum that also housed the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Ukraine, an extension of the Denver-based Bear Valley Bible Institute.
In published remarks CCC's minister Andrew Zhuravlev, who is also a teacher at the Bible Institute, quoted the commander as saying his soldiers were part of Russian troops and he "told us that any denominations apart from the Eastern Orthodox [Moscow Patriarchate] are illegal on this territory.”
“This officer gave us three hours to take some our things out of the building, after that the building was ’cleaned’ – that meant that remaining things were destroyed and we don’t have any access to the building or neighbouring land,” Zhuravlev told Christian news agency World Watch Monitor.
“Of course, we were shocked because of all that, children were crying of fear, one young Christian lady fainted, and some started arguing with soldiers trying to get the building back.”
Russian forces have reportedly established a headquarters in the church complex in Gorlovka, a key city in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Just days earlier, the national bishop of Ukraine's largest Pentecostal-Charismatic denomination, was freed after being abducted by suspected pro-Russian separatists, his brother and a mission group leader confirmed to BosNewsLife, May 17.
Bishop Aleksey Demidovich, who leads the Ukrainian Church of God (COG) and co-chairs the Ukrainian Interchurch Council, was reportedly kidnapped by pro-Russian forces Friday, May 16, in the city of Slovyansk in the troubled eastern Donetsk region.
The situation isn't much better in Crimea. On June 1, armed men in traditional Cossack clothes reportedly attacked the Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate (the UOC-KP) in the Crimean village of Perevalnoe.
The group smashed the door, trashed the church and attacked the priest Ivan Katkalo and parishioners including a pregnant woman, who came to the priest’s aid, Christians said.
Christians say the violence resembles time when the area was part of the former Soviet Union when atheist policies persecuted Christians, killing between 12 -20 million people between 1922 and 1991.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was especially under pressure, having to operate completely underground until 1989.
"During Soviet times, we were always accused of being ‘agents’ of the Vatican," Bishop Vasyl Ivasyuk, told the Catholic News Agency.
"Of course not all people in Crimea think we are spies, but there is a very active pro-Russian group there that does."
Since the referendum, maltreatment is not isolated to Christians, with representatives of Ukraine’s Jewish community complaining of growing anti-Semitism. Anxieties have also been expressed by Crimean Tartars, a Sunni Muslim minority group, who died by the thousands while being deported by forces loyal to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on cattle trains to Central Asia in 1944.
Ukrainian Pastor Edward Dolzhikiv was among those escaping Crimea recently to return to his home town Uzhhorod, on Ukraine’s western border with the European Union, just before Crimea's March 14 referendum on independence.
Having lived in Crimea since 2009, he and his family first fled the region on February 17 amid fears of civil war, leaving all of their possessions behind, except what they could fit into their car.
Dokzhikiv returned to Crimea alone on February 25, days after the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, saying he wanted to meet his predominantly Korean congregation at 'New Light' Presbyterian Church.
Many Koreans have lived in Crimea since World War II, during which Stalin feared that ethnic Koreans would support Japan. He deported many from the Far East of the Soviet Union to Central Asia. Upon their arrival, many were persecuted by Islamic groups, so they fled west to Crimea.
Dolzhikiv’s visit was cut short, due to "tremendous pressure with the hastily-arranged referendum" on March 16, he told World Watch Monitor. The situation was "too dangerous" because he was pro-Ukrainian and had no interest in becoming Russian Orthodox, apparently the most protected religious group, he added.
"People threaten you, call you names and they became reluctant to help. My kids could not continue studying in school because it became Russian, and it became impossible to pay for the utilities when the Russian currency was implemented."
His church, now looking to hire another pastor, is uncertain about its future due to strict control over religious organisations by Crimea’s new Russian authorities.
Dolzhikiv said he feared the church will close because of deep differences between basic religious laws in Russia and Ukraine. While Ukrainian law grants equal status to all religions, Russian law provides special privileges to Russian Orthodoxy.
Dolzhikiv has returned to his western home town of Uzhhorod, near the border with the European Union, leaving behind desperate Christian friends.
"What is clear in Crimea is the refusal of local authorities to rent state buildings to churches. For example, for 18 years a ‘Charismatic’ church, called 'Vozrozhdenie' [Renaissance] run by pastor Sergey Tarasik, rented a building but since Crimea became Russian they are refused to continue renting it and now they are temporarily gathering in a Baptist church building," he said.
"The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is growing, it is very much against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and any other churches," Dolzhikiv added.
While the pastor could find shelter, many thousands of refugees are homeless, suggested Russian Ministries (RM), a major mission group working in the former Soviet Union.
"The continuing violence in eastern Ukraine [alone] displaced approximately 15,000-23,000 people, creating a new humanitarian crisis in that country," warned RM's President Sergey Rakhuba.
Last weekend RM's group hosted a gathering in Irpen, Ukraine, to train pastors, missionaries, youth workers, and other Christian representatives in how to provide psychological help, aid and 'the Gospel' to refugees of various ages.
"As part of its Emergency Fund for Ukraine, Russian Ministries is sponsoring the “I Care” Refugee Assistance program...to fill and distribute at least 1,000 food packs with basic food and personal care items as well as a copy of Scripture for refugee families," Rakhuba told BosNewsLife.
"The cost to fill and deliver each food pack is $50, which will feed one refugee family for a week."
He said, "Having fled their homes, jobs, and friends, refugee families now face a host of new problems including the need for housing, food, clothing, work and medical care."
Additionally, "They also must cope with less visible but equally serious issues including fear, anxiety, mistrust, disorientation, and lack of purpose."
RM told BosNewsLife earlier it already printed 200,000 copies of the Gospel of Luke in the Ukrainian language and would print another 200,000 copies in the Russian language "for use in Russian-speaking, eastern portions of Ukraine."
Missionaries have also distributed Bibles among Russian troops. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week some 30,000 Ukrainian refugees are now in Russia's Rostov region, which borders Ukraine.
Amid the human suffering, President Poroshenko ordered security agencies to organize transport and relocation to help civilians leave areas affected by fighting between rebels and Ukraine's military.
His office gave no details however on where the civilians could be relocated, or what accommodation was available.
He also called for a ceasefire by the end of the week, but that is late for Christians and other residents in places such as Slovyansk. The strategic city has been at the center of heavy fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels.
"Yesterday, the centre of the city was hit the hardest. There were a lot of injured people, and a lot of buildings were hit that had not been hit before,” said a man, whose name was not revealed. A local woman is concerned about the future. “This will never end,” she said. “They will only stop shooting when they wipe us from the face of the earth, when nothing remains here but an empty space.”
However U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told journalists in Kiev that she has praised Poroshenko's plan to resolve the conflict. Nuland promised that $48 million pledged by Vice President Joe Biden to Kiev on Sunday would be used “in eastern Ukraine in conjunction with the president's peace plan.”
Yet, ongoing fighting overshadowed European Union-brokered talks Tuesday, May 10, between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas deliveries, impacting impoverished people here. Kyiv has accused Moscow of rising prices following the ouster of Yanukvich.
If no agreement is reached over a $5.2 billion debt, deliveries to Ukraine could potentially stop within hours, officials warned.
Poroshenko hopes his administration will be able to deal with Russia. On Tuesday the chocolate tycoon-turned politician an executive and business ally Boris Lozhkin as chief of staff. Journalist Svyatoslav Tsegolka, of the television network owned by Poroshenko, was chosen as press secretary.
Poroshenko took-over power this weekend from interim president Olexander Turchynov, a Baptist Christian who is also a pastor at Kyiv's Baptist Church.