Missionaries Find Fertile Ground

21.06.2002, 20:09
Unlike counterparts in Russia who have reported harassment and discrimination at the hands of authorities, missionaries working in Ukraine say that their churches enjoy religious freedom.

Source: Kyiv Post

Dana Liss

In Russia, some Christian churches, notably Pentecostals, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been threatened with property seizures and have been subjected to verbal harassment and discrimination, according to a U.S. State Department report released last year. That’s not so in Ukraine, according to Lyudmyla Filipovych, a senior researcher at the Department of Religious Studies at the National Academy of Science.

“Protestantism is a larger threat to the identity and power of the Russian Orthodox establishment than to the Orthodox establishment in Ukraine,” Filipovych said.

Oleksander Manzhos, president of the National Religious Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, said that some missions in Russia have been advised not to wear nametags bearing the church’s name in public. Not one of the church’s 200 missionaries serving in Ukraine has experienced problems with local authorities, Manzhos said.

Rev. Mykhailo Dymyd of the Lviv Theological Academy said that convergence between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government has allowed problems to persist in Russia. He claimed that the Russian Orthodox Church was principally behind the abuses, and has attempted to have some foreign churches’ non-profit status revoked. “Ukrainian churches are more accepting of non-traditional churches,” he said.

Foreign missionaries say that the freedom has given their missions the confidence to expand their churches and services. Freedom, they say, is also partially responsible for the steady growth of their membership.

Manzhos said that for the past five years the Mormons have added 500 to 600 new members every year. Representatives of American Baptist and Pentecostal ministries confirm the trend.

The International Baptist Church of Kyiv said that over the two years the church has attracted as many as 120 new members.

The All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of the Evangelical Christian-Faith Pentecostals say that they also grow by about 200 new members annually. “Foreign churches, especially the financially strong Mormons and Baptists, are the fastest-growing churches in Ukraine,” Filipovych said. They are accomplishing rapid growth despite a law that regulates the issuance of visas to missionaries and others who intend to do religious work in Ukraine. To obtain a visa, an invitation from an existing officially recognized religious organization is required. “Even with [the visa restrictions], foreign churches are still attracting large numbers of converts,” she said.

Vitaly Babych, co-director of the International Baptist Church of Kyiv, said that he opposes laws that impede access to the country by religious workers. “Ukraine should not be in the practice of keeping other cultures out, including religious cultures,” he said.

Missionary activity has slumped since the new visa rules went into effect in 1995. She estimated that about 340 missions were active in the country prior to 1995, and that only about 200 registered U.S.-funded churches are active in the nation today. Those still here represent a diverse group of faiths, from Western-based Christian fundamentalists to Muslim organizations.

Sam Taylor, a former pastor at the International Baptist Church, said Christians are attracted to what they see as a spiritually starved region that “suffered at the hands of the Soviets.”

Though Ukraine and Russia are recognized as predominantly Orthodox countries, Mykhailo Panochko, pastor of the Pentecostal Union Church in Kyiv, said that other Christian denominations are not entirely alien influences. “Foreign missionaries have only helped to revive traditions that were suppressed during Soviet times,” Panochko said.

American missionaries, who regularly attract converts using radio and television broadcasts and rallies in stadiums and concert halls at home, have come to realize that the same tactics don’t work well in this country. “Ukrainians negatively view the activities of foreign missionaries who preach aggressively using the mass media,” Filipovych said.

“[The missionaries] have learned to be more low-key,” she said. Taylor said that most churches couldn’t afford to use the mass media anyway. He said that the International Baptist church funds its activities through donations. It spends about $400 per month on rent and events. Offering free English lessons has been one of the most popular ways the church has attracted members. The church delivers English-only sermons on Sundays and Ukrainian-translated bible study during the week. “Many people don’t come here for the first time out of spiritual motivation, but because of a cultural fascination with Americans and the language classes,” Taylor said.

“They realize that a good grasp of the English is beneficial to their careers.” The church primarily attracts secondary school and university students and young entrepreneurs who want to learn English to improve their careers. ”I come for the English classes,” said Valerie Zasyedatyeleva, 15, who also said she didn’t plan on becoming a church member.

Zasyedatyeleva travels 45 minutes each way from her home in the outskirts of Podil to attend the classes. Lyda Devejanko, 14, said that she doesn’t see the church as a religious structure. ”This is a place to learn and be welcomed,” she said. “I don’t really know the difference between religions,” she said.