Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Major Role of Protestant Christians in New Ukrainian Government Disturbs Russians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 25 – Members of Protestant Christian denominations are playing a major role in the new Ukrainian government, from acting president Aleksandr Turchinov, who is a Baptist, on down, a development that these denominations are celebrating but that some Russians see a threat to what they call “the Russian world.”

            Ukraine sits astride cultural fault lines between east and west, and nowhere is this today more evident than in religious affairs, where as one Russian commentator put it, “representatives of non-traditional religious organizations, which in many countries are considered sects” are now in power (kavpolit.com/articles/uroki_sektovedenija_po_ukrainski-2206/).

            The “contribution” of Protestants and intellectual influenced by them to the “orange revolution,” the Maidan and the ouster of Viktor Yanukovich was significant, Nikolay Protsenko says in an article posted on Kavpolit.com, and the presence of Protestants in the government is the result.

            Robert Tolliver, a Protestant minister who works in Kyiv, says that the Baptist Turchinov is “a suitable person for the demands of the current moment and will receive widespread support.” He points out that “Ukraine is the most evangelical and spiritually advanced nation of all the former Soviet countries.”

            Ukraine, Tolliver continues, “has sent more missionaries abroad than any other forner Soviet country. Ninety percent of the pastors in Russia are from Ukraine.” The largest charismatic church, the largest Baptist Union, the largest messianic congregation, and one of the largest Baptist seminaries “are all in Ukraine.”

            President Turchinov belongs to the Union of Life Baptist Church which was founded in 1983 by Swedish pastor Ulf Ekman.  “Like many other Protestant congregations,” Protsenko says, “this church is oriented toward active missionary activity, including in the post-Soviet spae and in particular in Russia.”

            Among other members of this denomination in the new Ukrainian “establishment,” the Kavpolit.com writer continues, are former Kyiv mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, former Dandy Bank head Mikhail Brodsky, and Ukrainian Popular Self-Defense Union ideologist Andrey Shkil.

            Exact figures on the number of Ukrainian Protestant remain in dispute, but most estimates suggest that two to three percent of the population of the country are members of approximately 10,600 Protestant congregations.  Moreover, all these numbers are increasingly rapidly.

            Most of Protsenko’s article is devoted to the relatively small number of Ukrainians who are members of the controversial Church of Scientology, a trend that many in the West are very critical of and that many Russians view as the symbol of all that is wrong with what the Russian Orthodox Church and its supporters call “sects.”

            In Protsenko’s telling, the 2004 Orange Revolution which brought Yushchenko to power opened the floodgates for the influx of Protestant influence into Ukraine and for Ukraine’s conversion into a base from which Protestant groups sought to spread their influence into the Russian Federation and other former Soviet republics.

            Moreover, he continues, standing behind the Protestants in Ukraine is the US State Department, which he says has promoted Protestantism in the post-Soviet space particularly since 1998 when the Congress approved the International Religious Freedom Act which encouraged contacts between religious groups in these countries and Washington.

            Protsenko’s article concludes by quoting Lyudmila Filippovich, a professor at Kyiv’s Mohylev Academy.  She has said that “the Maidan was angered by the obviously anti-Christian spirit and inhumanity of Yanukovich’s administration.”  As a result, she says, the Maidan was shaped by these moral concerns.

            According to the Kavpolit.com writer, there is no need for commentary on this point.   But in fact, there are three observations that must be made. First, this article reflects the fears of many in Russia that Protestantism threatens political change in the post-Soviet states and thus is an enemy of both Orthodoxy and the Russian state.

            Second, it suggests that the Kremlin may make its anti-Protestant attitudes a central part of it ideological attack on Ukraine in the future, something that would by touching on some of the deepest and most personal aspects of faith, inevitably exacerbate what is already a tense conflict between Russians and Ukrainians.

            And third, such commentaries – and Protsenko’s is hardly alone – suggest that one of the features of life in Russia and in any portion of Ukraine Russia controls may soon be a violent crackdown on Protestant Christians.  If that happens, it will create yet another division between east and west – and one not limited to what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine.

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