Russian evangelical leader apologises to Ukrainian Christians

A priest conducts the burial service for a Ukrainian soldier killed in the Donetsk region, at the home cemetery in Bila Krynytsia on March 6, 2022, in the Chernivtsi region in western Ukraine. (PHOTO: Christianity Today)

Originally published in Christianity Today

In the highest-profile statement yet of its kind, the leader of the Russian Evangelical Alliance has announced his “bitterness and regret” over decisions taken by his government.

Will it be enough to rebuild bridges with fellow Ukrainian believers across the border?

“I mourn what my country has done in its recent military invasion of another sovereign country, Ukraine,” stated REA general secretary Vitaly Vlasenko in a March 12 open letter. “In the worst-case scenario, I could not imagine what is now being observed.”

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His language is precise, but also careful.

On March 4, the Russian parliament amended its criminal code to impose prison terms for up to 15 years for spreading “fake news” that “discredits” the military.

Notably, Vlasenko did not use the Russian government’s designated label of “special military operation” to describe the violence in Ukraine. Utilizing “conflict” and “invasion” instead, he avoided describing it—though he did imply—with terms that have been officially banned, such as “war.” And alongside recognition of Ukraine’s fear of “occupation,” he cited Russia’s goal of “demilitarization.”

Two days earlier, a Russian court fined an Orthodox priest 35,000 rubles ($261) for discrediting the army during his Sunday sermon. His congregation helped pay the fine.

Russian media lawyers are debating whether the law prevents citizens from questioning the “special military operation” or calling for it to end.

Vlasenko’s statement (the full text is below) toes the line.

“Everything I could do to prevent war, I did,” Vlasenko lamented. “I apologize to all those who have suffered.”

Chief among his efforts was a statement released two days before the invasion, endorsing the appeal of Ukrainian religious leaders for a peaceful solution. And spiritually he has led Russian initiatives for fasting and prayer as well as joint meetings with European and Ukrainian believers to pray and seek reconciliation.

And since the war began, he said he has coordinated aid for 500 refugee families that fled east into Russia.

“Two peoples closely related to each other, many of whom are deeply devoted to the Christian (primarily Orthodox) faith, are now in a fierce battle,” Vlasenko stated. “Peaceful feelings are being destroyed amidst the bombing and shelling.”

So are Christian buildings—and lives.

On Saturday the shelling damaged the highest-profile location so far—the 16th-century Holy Dormition Svyatogorsk Lavra, a monastery complex revered as one of the three most sacred sites in Ukraine. A church statement said people inside were wounded, though it did not attribute blame.

In a statement released March 8, the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations condemned Russian aggression against civilian areas. It listed three churches damaged in the fighting, including an evangelical prayer house near the besieged city of Kharkiv.

To that number can now be added Christ the Savior church in Mariupol.

The port city of 430 000 residents has been without drinking water for a week. The mayor stated 1,500 have died since the Russian attack began. Among them is Mykola, an evangelical, who was helping with evacuations, according to CT sources. Fellow believer Katya, a paramedic with the Ukrainian army, also perished.

Pope Francis is outraged at the “unacceptable armed aggression.” Noting the city is named after the Virgin Mary, he issued his strongest statement yet.

“Put an end to the bombings and the attacks!” Francis said on Sunday. “Let there be real and decisive focus on the negotiations, and let the humanitarian corridors be effective and safe. In the name of God, I ask you: stop this massacre!”

Sympathizing proactively is Zaporizhzhia’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), affiliated with the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Metropolitan Luka mobilized a caravan to attempt to deliver 90 tons of food and medicine to Mariupol.

At least six UOC parishes have ceased offering official prayers of recognition to Russian Patriarch Kirill: in Lviv, Cherkasy, Rovno, Sumhy, Ivano-Frankovsk, and Mukachevo.

And for the first time, Metropolitan Onufry, senior cleric in the UOC, acknowledged the conflict as a Russian attack. Like Vlasenko — though within the safety of Ukraine’s borders — he used the forbidden word.

“Our country is experiencing a time of difficult trials evoked by the attack upon our country by the troops of the Russian Federation,” he stated last Thursday. “There is no justification for those who start wars.”

In 2019, the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, recognised the national independence of the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), while many parishes in Ukraine rejected this and chose to remain under the Russian-affiliated UOC. (Exact figures for OCU- and UOC-affiliated churches in Ukraine are difficult to determine.)

Russia has characterised events differently.

Where Zelensky emphasised that there was “no military target” near the UOC-affiliated Lavra monastery, the Russian military said it “liberated” the complex from a Ukrainian militia that was holding monks hostage. Similarly, the head of Russia’s National Defence Control Centre said Luka’s caravan was also designed to evacuate citizens, until it was fired upon by Ukrainian nationalists.

Kirill blamed Bartholomew—and the West.

“They spared no effort, no funds to flood Ukraine with weapons and warfare instructors,” he stated in a March 10 letter. “Yet, the most terrible thing is not the weapons, but the attempt to ‘re-educate,’ to mentally remake Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine into enemies of Russia.”

Kirill was responding to a March 2 letter from the World Council of Churches (WCC), asking him to mediate to stop the war. The ROC joined the ecumenical body in 1961.

In polite church language, Kirill told them to butt out.

“I express my hope that even in these trying times … the [WCC] will be able to remain a platform for unbiased dialogue,” he wrote, “free from political preferences and one-sided approach.”

Dozens of worldwide Orthodox scholars and clerics have rejected Russian and ROC propaganda in an open letter replete with scriptural affirmations.

“The support of many of the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate for President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is rooted in a form of Orthodox ethno-phyletist [conflation between church and nation] religious fundamentalism, totalitarian in character, called Russkii mir, or the Russian world,” stated the 65 signatories, including one in Russia.

“We reject [this] heresy and the shameful actions of the government of Russia … as profoundly un-Orthodox, un-Christian, and against humanity.”

Also pulling no punches is the Evangelical Association of Theological Education in Latin America (AETAL), coming to the defence of their co-seminarians in Ukraine.

“We demonstrate full support and solidarity to the Ukrainian people and the Church of Christ present in this country,” stated the association’s board of directors, condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “despotic” leadership.

“AETAL comes public to attest an unconditional and unrestricted refusal to [his] belligerent actions in eastern Europe.”

In Kherson, the first city to fall to the Russians, Tavriski Christian Institute (TCI) reported that troops are taking over the seminary to use as barracks.

Meanwhile, a Baptist World Alliance (BWA) statement—signed by Peter Mitskevich, president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and addressed to Putin, Zelensky, and the presidents of the US and France — avoided assignment of blame. Assuring Russia of its historic support, dating back to 1933, the BWA also recalled its resolution of 1968 that “war as a means of permanent solution is untenable.”

However, it did not use the term in reference to Ukraine. Instead, it lamented a “violent conflict,” called for the end of “hostilities,” negotiation for “mutual security,” and the limiting of “widespread harm.”

Of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, it recalled sadness over the “severe tension” as well as support for initiatives of reconciliation.

“The whole Christian world prays for you in hope that the vision of the prophet Isaiah will be embodied as swords are transformed into plowshares,” read the statement, signed additionally by BWA general secretary Elijah Brown and Alan Donaldson, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.

“And that the prayer of the Apostle Paul will be fulfilled as the conditions are created for a peaceful and prosperous life for all people.”

Such statements have consistently failed to satisfy most Ukrainian evangelicals. Will Vlasenko’s be any different?

“The bravery and honesty is something that has historically been in deficit among Christians in Russia,” said Jaroslaw Lukasik, director of Eastern Europe Reformation, who called it a “fresh breath of air.”

“However, before amendments can be made and talk of peace and solidarity, we need to work together in stopping the evil that Putin’s regime has unleashed on Ukraine,” he told CT. “So our question is will our brothers and sisters in Russia take an active stand with us in the fight against the Russian regime?”

Multiple Ukrainian evangelical leaders declined comment to CT.

In his open letter, the Russian evangelical leader wrote that he has done what he could.

“My prayer is that you will find strength from the Lord to extend your hand of solidarity and forgiveness, so we can live as the people of God to our world,” Vlasenko stated. “May our heavenly Father help us all.”

Full text of Vitaly Vlasenko letter:

March 12, 2022

To my dear brothers and sisters around the world:

As the General Secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, I mourn what my country has done in its recent military invasion of another sovereign country, Ukraine.

For me, as for many other Christians, the military invasion was a shock. In the worst-case scenario, I could not imagine what is now being observed in Ukraine. Two peoples closely related to each other, many of whom are deeply devoted to the Christian (primarily Orthodox) faith, are now in a fierce battle—one side pursuing the goal of demilitarizing Ukraine, the other seeking to save their country from occupation.

Many Russians and Ukrainians have close family relations in the opposite country. A Russian may have daughters and grandchildren living in Kyiv; a Ukrainian may have children living and working in Moscow. Today, pain, fear, and deep sorrow for their loved ones and for the future of their own lives and countries pierce the hearts of many people like lightning, because since the Second World War no one knows what the limits of war and its consequences may be.

Today, soldiers from one side and the other are dying. Peaceful feelings are being destroyed amidst the bombing and shelling, and a stream of increased attention has rushed across Europe in the form of refugees: women, the elderly, and children.

All these events cause me deep sorrow, bitterness, and regret for decisions taken by the leadership of my country, and a great compassion for those suffering as a result of this decision.

Everything I could do to prevent war, I did in an attempt to stop this military invasion:

• In my capacity as General Secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, I wrote an open letter to President Vladimir Putin the day before the invasion, in which I supported the request of the religious leaders of Ukraine for a peaceful solution to all conflict.

• We initiated fasting and prayer for peace and harmony between Russia and Ukraine.

• Our Alliance took part in public prayer alongside Russian, Ukrainian, and European leaders for the reconciliation of all parties.

• The Russian Evangelical Alliance provided humanitarian assistance to more than 500 refugees from Ukraine stationed in southern Russia.

• We initiated a roundtable and subsequent international conference on the topic of military and political conflicts.

Today, as a citizen and as General Secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, I apologize to all those who have suffered, lost loved ones and relatives, or lost their place of residence as a result of this military conflict. My prayer is that you will find strength from the Lord to extend your hand of solidarity and forgiveness, so we can live as the people of God to our world.

May our heavenly Father help us all.

With deep respect, your brother in the Lord,

Vitaly Vlasenko

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