Mariupol: Churches “cut off from the outside world, but not cut off from God”

Images of death and destruction continue to pour out of Mariupol, where the city council announced that they are bracing for the death by year’s end of 10,000 of the city’s remaining 170,000 residents, due to disease and unsafe living conditions.

Yet today other images are also emerging from that besieged city: photos and video from Voice of the Martyrs Korea show small groups of believers continuing to meet for worship, partake of the Lord’s Supper, bury their dead, and carry out the work of the church.

The Lord’s Supper served in the Gonda Street Baptist church in Mariupol church on May 1 (used with permission by the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists).

“It is wrong to think of churches as the first to evacuate and the last to return in the event of wars and natural disasters,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Foley Dr Hyun Sook Foley. “Typically, Christians are the ones who stay. First and foremost, they worship God from those places of devastation. Then they serve their neighbors there, through intercessory prayer and by sharing whatever they have, even at the cost of their lives.”

Voice of the Martyrs Korea operates “Голос Мучеников – Корея”, a Russian language edition of its popular Facebook page on Christian persecution. The page has 12,000 followers from across the Russian-speaking world. The majority, approximately 7,000, live in Ukraine and interact with the ministry and with each other through the site. Representative Foley says the organization also maintains private channels of communication with Christians and churches in all parts of Ukraine, including Mariupol.

Representative Foley says that when Mariupol Christians write, it is not primarily to ask for help. “They clearly have almost nothing, but mainly they just want to praise God for his faithfulness to them and let their Christian brothers and sisters in the ‘outside world’ know that they are still ‘at their post’ serving God,” says Representative Foley. “Media reports keep emphasizing only that the people in Mariupol are ‘cut off’ from the outside world. And that is true. But Christians in Mariupol also want people to know that even though they are ‘cut off’ from the world, they are not cut off from God, and that God is faithfully caring for them.”

Representative Foley says that truth was powerfully illustrated by photos sent by an unregistered Baptist church partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday in May and then distributing food to congregation members after the service. “The report from the ‘house of prayer’ on Gonda Street in Mariupol also said that ‘visitors from the world’—meaning, non-Christians—had attended worship on Easter, and that several people had turned to the Lord through prayers of repentance.”

Members of the Baptist church on Gonda Street in Mariupol in a recent photo (used with permission by the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists).

Representative Foley says that the Gonda Street congregation has not been spared from the suffering happening around them in the city. “The church’s deacon, Vladimir Redkokashin, died as a result of his faithful witness,” says Representative Foley. “Church members tell us that when the armed conflict began, many people left the area, and Deacon Vladimir was the one minister in the church who remained. The members say he set up a basement not only for them but also for the neighbors, and that he accepted everyone who came, treating them with care and love.”

Church members told Voice of the Martyrs Korea that they last saw Redkokashin alive on March 19. Representative Foley shared their report: “We brought people to [the Gonda Street Church], and after that we were planning to evacuate them from the city. He prayed on the road, blessed the way.  In the evening he went to visit his own family.  When he was closing the garage, a shell flew not far away and wounded him in the stomach.  He spent the night at home, and the next day he was taken to the hospital.  According to the testimony of the medical staff, he prayed all the time.  On the operating table, after praying, he passed away.”

Representative Foley says church members told Voice of the Martyrs Korea that it took authorities a month to retrieve his body and bring it to the morgue. “Church members buried the deacon on April 26,” says Representative Foley. “Photos from the funeral show a plain wooden casket and a simple cross and handwritten name placard marking his grave. But the photos also show the congregation faithfully gathered together to worship God at the funeral. They wrote us, ‘Thanks be to God for the fact that we have such faithful servants who, not only in word but also in deed, are a light and an example both for us believers and for those non- Chrisians around us.’ They did not ask for anything other than prayers for the deacon’s adult sons, Sergei and Maxim, who are not yet believers.”

Members of the Gonda Street Baptist church in Mariupol gather to bury their deacon, Vladimir Redkokashin, on April 26 (used with permission by the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists).

Representative Foley says it is wrong to think of Christians in Mariupol primarily as people in need of help. “Their situation from a human standpoint is dire, but in other ways they have more than we do,” says Representative Foley. “One report we received from Mariupol noted simply that a church distributed much-needed food, and that the church members were deeply grateful. Another report from the church in Myrnyi block talked about how the church had three repentances that Sunday. Another report included photos of the church’s blown-up building in Livoberezhnyi District, but the report was an expression of thankfulness for all those who have been praying for the church. Another report included a video of a female congregation member offering beautiful special music at a worship service in which their small church sanctuary was completely full. Gratitude, repentance, praise, thanksgiving, faithful attendance at worship despite extreme difficulties—these are offerings that please the Lord more than money.”

One of three repentances at the Baptist Church in Mirniy block in Mariupol at a worship service in May (used with permission by the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists).

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea is providing emergency assistance to local Ukrainian church congregations and individual Christians who are continuing to engage in faithful witness during the present Russia/Ukraine conflict. “Other Christian groups and churches around the world are sending truckloads of bread and medicine and funding evacuations and refugee housing of Ukrainian Christians, and that is certainly needed,” says Representative Foley. “But Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s calling is to help support the tiny Ukrainian churches that are just trying to faithfully be the church day-to-day where they are, despite the likelihood that it may cost them their lives.”

Representative Foley says it is a kind of aid that is not able to be mass-delivered on a truck or airplane. “Each day we are in contact with local Ukrainian churches and Christians. There are certainly financial needs, but sometimes what is needed is just talking or texting or praying with them, or listening to their stories. Sometimes they want us to provide them with resources on persecution and martyrdom. They are hungry to understand their experience biblically and in the light of Christian history. More than anything, Ukrainian Christians want their brothers and sisters around the world to know that God is remaining faithful to Ukrainian Christians, and Ukrainian Christians are remaining faithful to God.”  

A member of the Baptist church in Mirniy (district in Mariupol) sings a beautiful song of repentance at a worship service (used with permission by the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists).

Donations can be made to the Ukraine Emergency Fund at www.vomkorea.com/en/donation or via electronic transfer to:

국민은행 (KB Bank) 463501-01-243303

예금주 (Account Holder): (사)순교자의소리

Please include the phrase “Ukraine” with the donation.

The building of the Baptist church in Livoberezhnyi District in Mariupol that was recently destroyed (used with permission by the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists).
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CHINA: AUTHORITIES FORCE CANCELLATION OF WEDDING OF EARLY RAIN CHURCH MEMBERS

Zhang Qiang and Xiao Yue were no different than the thousands of other couples preparing for a wedding last Saturday, May 21, in China, except for one thing:

They are members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu.

Early Rain Covenant Church members Brother Zhang Qiang and Sister Xiao Yue were scheduled to hold their wedding May 21st.

As a result, last weekend did not end with them being pronounced husband and wife but rather with them being detained and then released from the Chengdu police station, with orders not to proceed with the ceremony.

The Chengdu police station where the bride and bridegroom were detained.

According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, the couple were not the only ones pressured by the authorities over the wedding.  

“Even the hotel where the wedding was scheduled to be held had to cancel due to the pressure,” says Representative Foley. “Elder Li Yingqiang, Pastor Wu Wuqing, Pastor Dai Zhichao, and others associated with the church were told by the police that they could not go out to attend the wedding. Sister Hu Xinrong, who was preparing to arrange the wedding, was stopped by the Dayi police at the high-speed railway station and had to return home. Even Brother Shen Bing, who went to the police station to comfort the couple while they were being detained, was followed by nearly ten security officers and was himself detained by the police even after the couple was released.”

Police officers were at the door of Pastor Dai Zhichao’s house to prevent him from leaving.

The forced cancellation of the wedding by Chengdu authorities is the latest in a series of disruptions, arrests, and investigations of Early Rain Church since the arrest of its Senior Pastor Wang Yi and more than 100 of its members on December 9, 2018. Pastor Wang Yi was sentenced on December 30, 2019 to nine years in prison by the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court for inciting subversion of state power and illegal business operations.

Messages from the hotel to the newlyweds, informing them that the hotel was forcibly requisitioned by the town government as a quarantine hotel and that their deposit was refunded.

“It would have been easy for Zhang Qiang and Xiao Yue just to separate themselves from the church and regard their wedding as a private event for their own happiness,” says Representative Foley. “But Ephesians tells us that marriage is not a private celebration but a mystery that shows the world the unbreakable bond between Christ and the church. The Early Rain congregation members continue to be one body—with Christ, with this couple, with Pastor Wang Yi in prison, and with Christians around the world.”

Subpoena from the Public Security Bureau. “Carrying out activities (wedding) in the name of a banned organization (ERCC)” was the crime referenced in the subpoena.

Representative Foley says her organization, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, is calling for a special time of prayer for Early Rain Church and particularly for the persecuted bride and bridegroom. “Sister Xiao Yue cried the whole time she was detained at the police station and even after the couple’s release. Brother Zhang Qiang reported that he was still under surveillance ever after returning home,” says Representative Foley.  

But according to Representative Foley, church members are committed to continuing on together, no matter the difficulties they face. “One church member wrote, ‘Although the wedding may seem impossible, Christ has already won, and He will soon come to marry His bride. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for the church. May we remain faithful and holy to our King, who loves us so much!’”

Individuals interested in donating to Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s work in partnership with the house church Christians of China can visit http://www.vomkorea.com/en/donation or give via electronic transfer to:

KB Bank: 463501-01-243303

Account Holder: (사)순교자의소리

Please note “China” on the transfer

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UKRAINE: THE PASTOR WHO STAYED WHEN HIS CHURCH LEFT

Prior to February 24, Viktor Polunin was the pastor of the Gospel of the Grace of God church in Kyiv.

Now, Pastor Polunin and his wife are the Gospel of the Grace of God church in Kyiv.

Pastor Viktor Polunin and his wife Polina travel around Kyiv delivering food, medicine, and gospel encouragement to those who remain in the area.

“Before the outbreak of hostilities, Pastor Polunin’s church had about 70 people, and it was dynamic and growing,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley. “They had a worship team, home groups, discipleship training, and social service ministries like feeding the homeless and the poor near the central railway station.”

But when fighting broke out on February 24, that changed.

“Pastor Polunin’s church members began to evacuate from Kyiv, first to the Vinnitsa region and Transcarpathia, then leaving Ukraine,” says Representative Foley.

After three weeks, only six people from the church remained in Kyiv, all involved in volunteer work, ministry, or civil defense.

With their congregation now gone, Pastor Polunin and his wife had to decide what to do next.

“We considered all options, realizing all the danger” Pastor Polunin told Voice of the Martyrs Korea. “We decided to stay in order to show that the church does not leave people in difficult times and in order to use the current situation to preach the Gospel.”

According to Representative Foley, people in their area began to come to Pastor Polunin and his wife seeking food and medicine, often referred by social service agencies. They also began to deliver food, hygiene items, children’s supplies, and medicines.

“We have several elderly people who are left without help and cannot take care of themselves,” says Pastor Polunin. “A blind elderly woman who had no one to take care of because everyone left, another woman is hunched over, unable to go to the store herself. An elderly woman whose son and grandson serve in the Ukrainian army, we helped her buy medicines – they all prayed with my wife.”

Caption: Pastor Polunin and his wife help the elderly, the disabled and families in Ukraine who are not able to care for themselves during the war. 

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea have designated Pastor Polunin and his wife as “green martyrs”.

“Early in church history Christians recognized that there were different kinds of martyrdom,” says Representative Foley. “‘Red martyrs’ were those who died for their faith in a bloody instant. ‘White marytrs’ were those who died to the world, living their lives in the desert or in monasteries. And ‘green martyrs’ were those who died to themselves, laying down their own lives daily as faithful witnesses to Christ.”

Pastor Polunin told Voice of the Martyrs Korea that their decision to stay and serve has been an encouragement to those who remain in Kyiv. “Many worried about us and asked us to leave,” says Pastor Polunin, “But for them our desire to stay was a confirmation that this is how the ministers of the church should act.”

Pastor Polunin told Voice of the Martyrs Korea that he and his wife previously discussed the possibility that they might be killed if they stayed and continued their church’s ministry. “We agreed that sudden death does not frighten us,” says Pastor Polunin. “Rather we would not like to face the experience of suffering and cruelty, and we pray that the Lord will protect us from this.”

According to Representative Foley, Pastor Polunin and his wife also continue to pray and worship with the church members who evacuated Kyiv. “Several times a week they do online gatherings with those members,” says Representative Foley. “They pray for the country and also try to serve as a point of connection between the ones who left and the ones who were left behind.”

Pastor Polunin told Voice of the Martyrs Korea that most church members express a desire to return, but he believes many may not. “I have been a church pastor since 1998,” Pastor Polunin said. “I think that the church will not just change, but most likely we will have to start from the very beginning. Now a new church is being formed. I am sad and happy at the same time about that. Our church was dynamic and growing. Now everything is at the start again, we will use all the experience for a new undertaking if we have enough strength.”

According to Representative Foley, the couple is already moving forward with this new undertaking. “They currently have a house that they use as a warehouse and are working on identifying more places for storage so they can expand their capacity to serve people.”

Caption: Pastor Viktor Polunin and team carry bags of food and supplies to the van in order to deliver to those in need in Kyiv. 

“We are preparing for the worst times,” Pastor Polunin told Voice of the Martyrs Korea. “Following the example of Joseph in the Old Testament, we want to stockpile food and clothing for the ministry of the moment, and especially for the ministry in need that will come in the near future.”

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea is committed to helping Ukrainian Christians who have become red martyrs and green martyrs as a result of the current conflict. “We have so far been able to provide aid to the families of six Ukrainian ‘red martyrs’ who have laid down their lives in faithful witness to Christ since February 24,” says Representative Foley. “But it is also important for us to support Ukrainian ‘green martyrs’ like Pastor Polunin and his wife, who have died to themselves but remain alive to Christ, risking their lives daily to serve as his faithful witnesses in these war zones. Our Ukraine Emergency Fund is our ‘green martyr’ support fund for Ukrainian Christians.”

This video shows Pastor Polunin delivering food and supplies to those in need. 

Donations can be made to the Ukraine Emergency Fund at www.vomkorea.com/en/donation or via electronic transfer to:

국민은행 (KB Bank) 463501-01-243303

예금주 (Account Holder): (사)순교자의소리

Please include the phrase “Ukraine” with the donation.

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