In the last two months, Russian occupation authorities have closed Melitopol’s three largest evangelical Protestant churches – Grace Church, Word of Life Church, and the Melitopol Church.
According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea, Russian authorities closed Grace Baptist Church in Melitopol on Sunday 11 September, during the church’s worship service.
“Armed men entered the sanctuary while the congregation was singing a hymn,” says VOM Korea Representative Hyun Sook Foley. “They halted the worship service, registered the names of all those present, and detained several ministers.” Foley added that Grace Baptist Church’s pastor, Mikhail Britsyn, was ordered to leave the city within 48 hours.
Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Chkalovo in the Melitopol district, Russian Federation soldiers came to the church’s evening service on 21 September and forbade the gathering, saying, “Your feet will not be here after the referendum. We have only one faith: Orthodoxy.” The church had been holding worship services every day since the war began.
VOM Korea has confirmed reports that the Word of Life Church’s building was seized by occupation authorities in August. The church’s pastor, Dmitry Bodiu, was arrested and detained for several days in March before being released and then leaving the city. Foley says that services continued at the church until August, when they were officially halted.
VOM Korea has also confirmed reports that the building of Melitopol Christian Church (MCC) was seized by occupation authorities in August, after harassment of the church and its pastor, Viktor Sergeev, began in March. “MCC was the largest church in the city,” says Foley. “It was a charismatic church, known for its large campus with a thousand–seat auditorium, a fountain, palm trees, and a gym.” She says eyewitnesses confirmed that the church’s cross has been removed and the church turned into a “cultural-sports-entertainment complex”.
Confiscation of church buildings and detainment of pastors is also occurring in other Russia-occupied cities like Mariupol. “In Mariupol, military officials asked the Kurchatov Church to open their prayer house for organising a referendum, but the church members declined,” says Foley. “The military have now confiscated the church’s building.”
On 23 September, men in military uniform and masks showed up at the home of Leonid Petrovich (pictured below), the leader of the Kurchatov Church, and his wife, Tatyana Nikolaevna Ponomarevs. Neighbours tried to find out what was happening, but were ordered to return to their homes and stay inside. They say they could hear groans and cries coming from the home until the military drove away with the couple two and a half hours later. To date, all attempts by family and church members to find out where the couple is have been unsuccessful.
Foley says that though the church buildings have been seized and church leaders have been detained, the congregations continue to operate.
“Ukraine has a tradition of an underground church extending back to Soviet times,” she explained. “The present situation cannot stop the work of Christ. The churches there are continuing to faithfully witness for Christ. They do not rely on pastors or buildings, but on the Lord Jesus alone.”
Pray for the continued strength and protection of churches in Ukraine. Pray that their congregations will continue gathering in secret, despite the risks.
Pray that Leonid and Tatyana will be released from their detention and returned safely to their community.
Pray for church leaders who have chosen to stay behind in these areas of high persecution.