Russia: New law causes pastors to mull risks of speaking, praying about Ukraine

A call for national repentance from more than 400 Russian church and seminary leaders was posted on a small Russian Christian website, then quickly removed.  A Russian lawyer instructed Russian churches via Facebook how to avoid trouble when they pray for peace during their worship services. A popular Russian pastor assured Russian Christians that private prayers to God to end the war are sufficient fulfillment of their spiritual responsibilities.

Russia’s new law, Article 20.3.3, is causing Russian pastors to “count the cost” before speaking or even praying publicly about their country’s actions in Ukraine.

These three examples from this month illustrate how Russia’s new law, Article 20.3.3, is causing Russian pastors to “count the cost” before speaking or even praying publicly about their country’s actions in Ukraine.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea operates Голос Мучеников – Корея, our Russian language edition of our popular Facebook page on Christian persecution, with 12,000 followers from across the Russian-speaking world.

Some Russian Christians are sharing their prayers for Ukraine and their concerns about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, not only on Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s Facebook page, but inside Russia itself. But a law enacted March 4, which criminalizes what the law calls “public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”, is causing Russian Christians to mull the risks of speaking according to their conscience.

Already one priest has been charged under the new law. According to BBC’s Russian language service, Ioann Burdin of Resurrection Church in Kostroma will be prosecuted for allegedly making anti-military statements in his sermon and circulating an online petition opposing the war.

Until more charges are made and more cases are prosecuted, it’s not possible to know with certainty what is permissible and what is criminal for pastors and churches.

Even prayers for peace could conceivably, in certain contexts, constitute a violation of the law, according to Sergey Chugunov, a Russian attorney who advises pastors and churches on his Facebook page. “I never thought we would live in a time where we would have to answer these questions – can the church call on parishioners to pray for peace in the light of the recent changes in the legislation?” wrote Chugunov in a recent Facebook post. Chugunov says Russian pastors and churches should expect to be prosecuted if they publish or publicly proclaim certain phrases like “No War”. But Chugunov also advises Russian pastors and churches to exercise caution in making any public statement related to the conflict. “Churches need to be careful in the formulation of widespread prayers and invitations to pray for peace,” he wrote on Facebook.

A scene from the 2018 movie, Tortured for Christ, which details efforts by Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, to evangelize Russian soldiers sent to his country during the Soviet era. Pastor Foley said, “In many ways, these days it feels like we are back in the earliest days of Voice of the Martyrs.”

But 400 Russian Baptist and Pentecostal church and seminary leaders went well beyond calling for prayers for peace in an open letter earlier this month entitled “Appeal to Compatriots”. The full text of the appeal, which was posted briefly on the website of a small Christian publishing company in St. Petersburg before being removed, apparently voluntarily, follows:

Sometimes I will say about a nation and a kingdom that I will destroy it; but if this people turn from their evil deeds, I will put off the evil that I thought to do to them” (Jer. 18: 7-8).

Dear compatriots!

Our army is conducting full-scale military operations in another country, dropping bombs and rockets on the cities of our neighboring Ukraine. As believers, we assess what is happening as a grave sin of fratricide – the sin of Cain, who raised his hand against his brother Abel.

No political interests or goals can justify the death of innocent people. Old men, women, children are dying. Soldiers on both sides are dying, cities and infrastructure are being destroyed. In addition to military targets, shells and bombs destroy hospitals, civilian buildings and residential buildings. Many people have become refugees, the war zones are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

In addition to bloodshed, the invasion of sovereign Ukraine encroaches on the freedom of self-determination of its citizens. Hatred is being sown between our peoples, which will create an abyss of alienation and enmity for generations to come. The war is destroying not only Ukraine, but also Russia – its people, its economy, its morality, its future.

The Scriptures call us to “keep our hands from evil and seek the ways of peace” and warn that “the one who sows evil will reap it.” If we really want to rely on spiritual values, now it is extremely important to listen to the words of Jesus Christ: “Put your sword in your sheath, for he who takes the sword by the sword will perish.” It is also said: “Judgment on bad deeds is not quickly done; hence the heart of the sons of men does not fear to do evil.” But God’s judgment is impartial and inevitable.

Today the moment has come when each of us must call a spade a spade. While we still have a chance to avoid punishment from above and prevent the collapse of our country. We need to repent for what we have done, first of all before God, and then before the people of Ukraine. We must give up lies and hatred. We call on the authorities of our country to stop this senseless bloodshed!

Ministers of Evangelical Churches in Russia

The letter appears to no longer be accessible on any Russian website, but we are seeking to spread the letter widely, in Russian as well as by translation into Korean, Chinese, and English. We are spreading the letter not to advocate a particular political position but rather to prevent the voice of our Russian Christian brothers and sisters from falling silent.

Still, silence is also a part of the Russian church’s faithful witness at the moment.

There are two kinds of silence churches may undertake. There is the silence which comes from fear, which is a sin. But there is also the silence of prayer, which is essential to the church’s ministry. One popular Russian pastor wrote on his Facebook page this month that Russian Protestants are such a small minority that they are unlikely to be able to change their country’s actions in Ukraine through protest marches or public statements, but he says they should not underestimate the power of appealing to God through silent prayer. “War can be stopped by God,” he said. “That’s why we cry out to him.”

That’s something no law can prohibit.

File footage from 2021 of Russian pastors discussing a building seizure of a local church congregation. Russian Christians have been dealing with a growing number of restrictions on property use, evangelism, contact with foreign missionaries, and, now, speaking out about Russian activities in Ukraine. 

Voice of the Martyrs Korea, in partnership with our sister mission Voice of the Martyrs Poland, has been sending emergency financial support to Ukrainian, Polish, and Moldovan churches ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of Ukrainian Christians and Christian refugees during the current conflict.

But VOMK’s primary and longest-standing commitment is to equip Christians to make a faithful witness wherever they are silenced or persecuted. Helping Russian Christians carry out a faithful underground Christian witness is how Voice of the Martyrs began more than 60 years ago. Our worldwide founder, Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, smuggled Bibles and gospel tracts to Russian soldiers who had been sent to Romania.

In many ways, these days it feels like we are back in the earliest days of Voice of the Martyrs.

We have many more Russian language training resources on book, website, and social media than our founder Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand did when VOM first started. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that Russian Christians are still willing to risk everything in order to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s underground training partnerships with Russian Christians can visit www.vomkorea.com/Russia. Individuals interested in donating to the Ukraine Christian Emergency Relief project can give 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 word “Ukraine” with the donation.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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