Crimean Baptists remain uncertain on future
KIEV, Ukraine (BP) -- Baptist workers in Russia and Ukraine remain uncertain what effect the recent Crimean referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia will have on churches in the region.
Although there is freedom of religion in Russia, national identity is tied to the Orthodox Church. Protestant denominations, which are classified as cults, are treated with mistrust. Laws related to religious activity are more tightly controlled in Russia than in Ukraine, where evangelical Christianity has surged since the early '90s.
"Baptist Church leaders are not sure what standing they will have with the new government," Tim Johnson,* an IMB representative in Kiev, said. "The freedoms of religion and the protection of the Ukrainian constitution are now lost and what standing they will have in the transition is uncertain."
The March 16 referendum in Crimea has left the region torn between two nations. Russia has claimed the region with a strong military presence, but Ukraine and its allies do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote. Residents of Crimea are living with the reality of having their citizenship, pensions, currency and property documents in limbo.
"There is an overhanging sense of the unknown," Johnson said.
John Green,* another International Mission Board representative in Russia, said Russians generally feel that Crimea belongs to Russia. Crimea was given to Ukraine as a gift when both were a part of the former Soviet Union. When Ukraine claimed independence in 1991, Russia lost Crimea.
"What is creating unease is how Russia is perceived by the rest of the world," Green said. "Russians want the rest of the world to see them as strong and courageous, and Baptist Russians want to see their countrymen trusting in God and not just their country."
A third player in this drama is the native people of the land, the Tatars, who make up less than 15 percent of Crimea's roughly 2 million people. Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin, the Tatars began returning to Crimea about two decades ago. They are deeply suspicious of Russian rule following the mass deportation of their ancestors to Central Asia by Soviet authorities in 1944, and they strongly protested the March 16 referendum.
Many Tatars are seeking refuge in western Ukraine. Central Baptist Church of Vinnytsia, Ukraine, has provided help to Tatars who have arrived in their city.
"If this (migration) increases there will need to be an organized response to help these people who are once again faced with losing their homes," Johnson said.
Throughout the past four months since EuroMaidan protests first began in Kiev, Ukrainian Christians have consistently responded to the political unrest with prayer and evangelism. Crimean Baptist pastor Kostya Bakonov, who leads a church in Simferopol, said many people are spiritually open because of the ongoing hostilities.
"Many people in Ukraine have been searching for answers and are seeking the answers from churches and ministers," Bakonov said. "We praise God that He is opening hearts to reveal Himself."
Johnson confirmed this sentiment. "It's amazing how much easier it is to talk to people now," he said.
Bakonov asked for continued prayer for the people of Crimea as they navigate this time of transition.
"I fervently believe the crisis in Ukraine is not only about the political stability in the country and region but also for the souls of men," he said.
*Name changed. Nicole Lee is a writer for IMB based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).