Ukrainian church members protest and pray after election
Members of the Nivki church joined tens of thousands of their countrymen as they protested the results of Ukraine’s Nov. 21 election and showed support for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.
“Church members protested, stood at barricades, brought food to demonstrators, and met together to pray for the nation,” said Chris Lovingood (left), director of the Ukrainian Education Center in Kiev.
Although the two candidates involved in the controversy have similar names, they represent the widely differing viewpoints that characterize Ukraine since its departure from the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, like many people in eastern Ukraine, favors a strong alliance with Russia. Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has greater support from western Ukrainians and favors increased ties with the European Union.
In the Oct. 31 election Yushchenko took a small lead, triggering a second-round ballot Nov. 21. After that vote, the country’s Central Electoral Commission declared Yanukovych the winner with 49.46 percent of the vote.
Those results sent protestors into the streets, claiming that Yanukovych supporters practiced widespread vote tampering — even busing Ukrainians from polling place to polling place to cast multiple votes. Western observers found evidence of such fraud, and the government eventually declared the election invalid.
A third vote was scheduled for Dec. 26, but the supporters of Yanukovych in eastern Ukraine have threatened to secede from the country if Yushchenko is elected.
“The region I live in is talking of separating and forming their own republic, while the west is trying to hold the country together,” said Andrew Kelly, a missionary who works with underprivileged youths in eastern Ukraine.
Mark Posey, minister for the Austinville church, Decatur, Ala., made his third trip to Ukraine in November to teach, preach and assist at orphanages in the eastern cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Dniprodzerzhynsk. Returning to his apartment after teaching an evening class at a Christian school, a group of four or five young men chased the minister, shouting what he later learned was Russian for “Go home, American.”
“I told friends about it the next day, and they said that if (the men) had not been drinking and had their emotions stirred from the election, it probably would not have happened,” Posey told the Decatur Daily newspaper.
Eastern Ukraine, which includes the city of Donetsk, is home to many church ministries that have flourished since the fall of Communism. The region also borders Russia and is home to many of Yanukovych’s supporters, said Kiev missionary Jim Noyes. “The Donetsk region is where Yanukovych’s ties are located – especially among the coal mining workers,” Noyes said.
In recent months, “Eastern Ukraine has been fed a daily diet of anti-American sentiment by state-controlled television and the government-supported candidate Yanukovych,” Lovingood said. “It’s quite reasonable to believe that there, the situation for American missionaries may change.”
Oklahoma minister Roger Thompson (left) oversees Blagovest, a Donetsk-based spiritual outreach ministry that supports evangelism efforts and several orphanages. Fellow minister David Deffenbaugh oversees Libre Press, a companion literature ministry in Donetsk.
“Our work is continuing as best we can in these conditions,” Thompson wrote to supporters Nov. 30. “I am very concerned for the orphans. Not only are people withdrawing their money from the banks, but they are buying up whatever food they can in anticipation of the worst.”
“Please know that we are reaching out to the orphans to make sure they are fed,” Thompson said. “We will not waver in our commitment to the children.”
Though the immediate future is unclear, Noyes said that many Ukrainians are optimistic about the future.
“Certainly we don’t want any reduction in prayers, because while progress has been made, it needs to be finished … through the voting and the change of government,” he said. “The big concern now is if there’s enough time to get the changes implemented and in place for the (Dec. 26) vote.”
Meanwhile, involvement in the political process has given church members in Kiev the chance to model Christian behavior for fellow Ukrainians, Lovingood said.
“(In) a crucial moment in the nation’s history, young Christians were able to see the Gospel at work in how it affects society as well as the individual,” Lovingood said.