Why Ukraine matters to Churches of Christ
The number of Churches of Christ in eastern Ukraine once…
Igor Kozlovsky endured 700 days of anguish, torture, sickness and inhumane living conditions at the hands of his captors, the pro-Russian separatists who seized control of his homeland in eastern Ukraine.
The 63-year-old author, theology professor and preacher for Churches of Christ was an outspoken critic of the war that has divided the Eastern European nation since 2014. Militia men accused him of espionage against their self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Seized outside his home on Jan. 27, 2016, Kozlovsky spent a month in a crowded basement with other prisoners.
At one point, his captors placed a cloth bag over his head, locked him in handcuffs and forced him to hold a pair of grenades, which they claimed they had found behind a bookshelf in his apartment. For hours, they beat him with “something that felt like sticks,” he said, but he continually denied their charges. After the beating, his arms and legs were swollen to “twice their normal size,” he said. He couldn’t walk for days.
That was probably the worst of the 700 days, Kozlovsky said. The best was Dec. 27, 2017, exactly 23 months after he was taken from his family. He and 74 other captives were freed as part of a prisoner exchange.
It was “my second birthday, the best page of my life,” the minister said in an interview with The Christian Chronicle from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
After his baptism years earlier, he once again felt reborn.
‘NO FREEDOM OF THOUGHT’
He should have listened to his wife. He knows that now.
Kozlovsky, a former deputy minister of religion for eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, worshiped with and nurtured the Cup of Life Church of Christ in Donetsk, a congregation of young believers.
Many of his fellow Christians fled westward after militants took control of the region, shortly after a similar uprising in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, later annexed by Russia.
In the Donetsk People’s Republic there is “no freedom of thought or expression,” Kozlovsky said, “no room for differences of opinion.” Separatists claim that the Russian Orthodox Church is the region’s only true church and see other Christian groups, especially those planted by foreign missionaries, as tools for Western propaganda, full of spies, according to news outlets allowed inside the occupied territory.
Militants have seized church buildings, including two used by Churches of Christ in the city of Gorlovka.
At one congregation, the Central Church of Christ, separatists interrupted Sunday morning worship and evicted the church’s members. In Donetsk, militants seized the meeting place of the Petrovsky Church of Christ and used it as a barracks.
Kozlovsky, unemployed after the militias seized the university where he taught, stayed in Donetsk to care for his 37-year-old son, Slava, who has Down syndrome and is confined to a wheelchair due to partial paralysis. Kozlovsky’s wife, Valentina, thought they should leave, but her husband feared the transition would be traumatic for their son.
Valentina Kozlovskaya was in Kiev on business when her husband was captured. Their son watched, alone and helpless, as soldiers rummaged through their apartment. Kozlovskaya rushed home to Donetsk and, after several attempts to secure her husband’s release, quit her job and moved with her son to an apartment in Kiev.
Jeff Abrams, minister for the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in Alabama and Chronicle correspondent, visited Kozlovskaya in October. Abrams’ congregation hosts an annual Camp Amerikraine for children, and the minister makes regular visits to support Churches of Christ in the nation of 45 million souls.
“Being in this humble home, I could sense just how much this wife needs her husband and how much this child needs his father,” Abrams said. “And being among Ukrainian Christians, I can sense just how much the church needs the return of this dynamic leader.”
Abrams planned a return trip for mid-January and collected funds from American Christians to support the family. The minister hoped to speak to Kozlovskaya again.
To his joy, he also got to speak to her husband.
‘WE MUST BE DISCIPLES OF LOVE’
Despite the brutal treatment and inhumane conditions, Kozlovsky said that the hardest part of his captivity was separation from his wife, Slava and Sasha (another adult son who lives in Kiev).
“He felt as if he were responsible for their anguish,” Abrams said. “He was concerned about their safety and well-being.”
Kozlovsky also learned that he could endure more than he realized. Prayer and yoga helped, he said. He did his best to counsel his fellow prisoners.
“All men have limits,” Abrams said, and Kozlovsky “saw those without Christ essentially destroyed during their confinement.
“He also said that captivity such as this has a way of ‘cleaning or washing a person,’ but not necessarily in a good way. Your values, your relations with others, your attitude toward people and various circumstances can be washed away. You are changed.”
As he recovers from his ordeal and considers the future — returning to teaching, perhaps writing a book — Kozlovsky said he’s thankful for the prayers of Christians across Ukraine and around the world. They gave him hope.
Now he prays for the other prisoners still in Donetsk.
“We must be disciples of love,” Kozlovsky said. “Everyone is different and has different life stories, opinions. We may disagree, but we must never turn to guns. It is important to talk, not fight.”
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