By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)– Christians in eastern Ukraine are mourning the death of four local church workers and a pastor who were killed in separate attacks by pro-Russian separatists as part of a wider crackdown on evangelicals in the war torn region, BosNewsLife learned.
Brothers Reuben Pavenko, 30, Albert Pavenko, 24, Viktor Bradarsky, 40, and Vladimir Velichko, 41, were kidnapped by pro-Russian forces on June 8 after a festive Pentecost Sunday service at the Transfiguration Church in the eastern city of Slavyansk, according to church sources.
Additionally Pastor Sergey Skorobagach from the Vivification Church, who served as chairman of the City Council of Churches, was reportedly killed by pro-Russian rebels.
He was “killed on June 14 in [another] terrorist attack on the bridge in [the south eastern city of] Mariupol” said the Council of Evangelical Protestant Churches of Ukraine. Some reports said the pastor’s vehicle was shelled by militants
The motive behind that killing was not immediately clear, but the four church workers were “shot…for believing in the Lord Jesus Christ,” added local Pastor Peter Dudnyk.
Pro-Russian separatists were apparently angered by their involvement in evangelizing their countrymen in personal meetings and through media. The Pavenko brothers were sons of a church pastor and one of the other Christian men was a church elder, Christians said.
They were reportedly initially taken to the former offices of the Security Service of Ukraine in Slavyansk, some 145 kilometers (90 miles) from the Russian border, where they were allegedly tortured.
The next day they could leave by car, but rebels apparently chased them in a vehicle and shot at their car. Three of the Christians jumped out to escape, but were shot dead immediately, Christians said.
Their driver was also killed and his body was reportedly burned when the pro-Russian separatists set the car on fire.
Gunmen allegedly took the bodies and buried them in a mass grave along with human remains of other murdered victims and pro-Russian forces killed in clashes with government troops.
Family members later discovered their whereabouts.
Despite ongoing fighting in the area, “Evangelical churches of the city came together” last month at a special funeral service, “cancelling their regular worship services,” explained Pastor Dudnyk in published remarks.
Evangelical Christians are also being targeted by separatists for allegedly supporting the central government in Kyiv and providing food and clothing to Ukrainian soldiers, Christians said.
Relatives of the four murdered men from Slavyansk said however they had no involvement in politics. They leave behind wifes and a total of eleven children.
Additionally other devoted Christians have been killed: In May, Archpriest Pavel Zhuchenko of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was shot dead near a roadblock in the Donetsk region. Pro-Russian rebels were blamed for his death.
Days later the national bishop of the Ukrainian Church of God, Aleksey Demidovich, was abducted in Slovyansk and held overnight. Militants reportedly seized his church building to use as a base for their operations. Several other priests and pastors have been kidnapped while their churches as well as a Christian university in Donetsk and church-backed orphanages and aid centers were occupied by pro-Russian rebels, several sources said.
“Since separatist movements proclaimed of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’…Christians in the eastern regions, especially evangelical religious denominations, are increasingly the victims of religious persecution,” noted the Council of Evangelical Protestant Churches of Ukraine.
An alternative to reach the faithful and those seeking Christ was radio, but that became difficult after explosions damaged the eastern Ukrainian radio tower of the major Christian network Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC).
The damage “forced us to suspend all radio transmissions due to damage sustained from increased fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian central government,” FEBC said in a statement. “The tower is located in the twin cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, a region especially hard-hit in recent weeks.”
However it pledged to “continue to broadcast in other parts of Ukraine, bringing the Good News to millions in a country trying to recover from 70 years of Communism and 20 years of corruption and moral disarray.” Ukraine, FEBC noted is “at a critical crossroads: politically, economically, and spiritually. It’s more important than ever that we are on the ground, proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior.”
Christians are also under pressure in Crimea, after the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March. Priests and pastors have reportedly been attacked or threatened by pro-Russian forces. Several church buildings have been destroyed.
Local believers said the violence resembles times 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.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko was due to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin later this week in Belarus to discuss an end to a conflict that has killed more than 2,000 people, injured many more and displaced hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in the east.
Pope Francis urged prayers for Ukraine on Sunday, August 24, as the country celebrated Independence Day to remember it breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Many of the 1,500 soldiers participating in Sunday’s ceremonies in Kyiv, later returned to the front lines of eastern Ukraine.