DONETSK/KHARKIV, Ukraine (BP) -- Tensions -- and prayer -- are now rising across eastern Ukraine as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate.
Violent demonstrations erupted during the April 4-6 weekend, with pro-Russian demonstrators calling for independence from Ukraine or annexation by Russia.
Thousands demonstrated in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, battling anti-riot police and seizing government buildings. In Donetsk, the Ukrainian flag was hurled to the ground from the city's administrative center and replaced by a Russian flag.
At noon on Sunday, April 6, International Mission Board worker Tom Long* received a message from a local news agency reporting that the city of Donetsk would be renamed the People's Republic of Donetsk.
"This is exactly what they did in Crimea," Long said. "One day they overtook the parliament building, and then they called for a referendum." The day after the vote for independence, Crimea was annexed by Russia.
Within an hour after Long received the message, a referendum in Donetsk was slated for May 11.
Pro-Russia activists, in storming the local government headquarters in Donetsk on Saturday, April 5, built a barricade around it. More than a hundred people were holed up inside, declaring a change of government. Ukrainian police were on guard outside but had said they will not use violence against the activists.
Similar scenarios were being played out in the cities of Luhansk and Kharkiv. In Luhansk, demonstrators seized a stockpile of government weapons.
IMB worker Joy Burnett*, who lives just blocks from the city center of Kharkiv, said the Ukrainian flag is still waving and won't be removed without a fight.
"They're not going to give it up the way they did Crimea," Burnett said.
Even among Ukrainian Baptists, who are historically pacifists, the threat of foreign domination is having an effect. Burnett said a Baptist friend recently told her, "I am ready to fight for my country."
Although the future of eastern Ukraine is uncertain, Burnett and Long said God is at work in the midst of the unfolding crisis.
As many as 200 believers have been gathering every morning in Kharkiv's Freedom Square, just feet away from a towering statue of Lenin, to pray for their country, Burnett reported. The nondenominational group includes Baptists, Pentecostals and Orthodox, the state church that is typically unfriendly toward evangelicals.
"It's really amazing," Burnett said. "Young and old, fathers bringing their children, rain or snow -- everybody is on their knees." Read More