EDITOR’S NOTE: This article includes additional reporting by Pathway Associate Editor Benjamin Hawkins.
LVIV, Ukraine (BP) – Baptists in Western Ukraine have made plans to shelter fellow believers in the case of a Russian invasion at Ukraine’s eastern border, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now leads a Baptist seminary in Ukraine told Baptist Press.
Meanwhile, a Missouri minister who has worked closely with him and other Ukrainian Christians is calling fellow Missouri Baptists to pray for their brothers and sisters in Ukraine.
“If Russia will invade, they will invade in eastern part and northern part, and a little bit of south,” said Yarsolav “Slavik” Pyzh, president of Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS) in Lviv who holds a doctorate from SWBTS.
“Churches already agreed,” Pyzh said. “Those that are on the western part of Ukraine … told our brothers and sisters in other parts of Ukraine [that] if something happens we will open our homes and our churches to you.”
Russia persecutes Christians through restrictions, such as the 2016 Yarovaya Law criminalizing evangelism outside church walls. Russia considers any church beyond the government-influenced Russian Orthodox Church to be sectarian or a cult.
Pyzh believes Russian victory in Ukraine would more than likely lead to Ukraine being split into two countries, with western Ukraine remaining independent. Baptist churches that would fall to Russian rule as a consequence would likely transition to spread the gospel underground, Pyzh said, rather than abandon the faith.
“The church will go underground,” he said. “You have to understand that historically we had that experience before under the Soviet Union. So the church did not forget what it means to be persecuted, and I think that we will rearrange, reorganize and still do what we always do, still preach the gospel.”
About 400 of the 1,300 students enrolled in UBTS are from eastern Ukraine, Pyzh said. UBTS has already helped Christian missionaries safely navigate the region during the current threat of violence.
“I think here in the West we would have the opportunity to train more students, to train more people, facilitate some help and support them in any possible way,” he said, “because I don’t believe that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will come here.”
Greg Morrow, former pastor of First Baptist Church, California, and executive director of the Missouri-based Future Leadership Foundation, has partnered with Pyzh and other Ukrainian Christians for a decade. He has also helped the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home develop a relationship with partners advancing adoption and foster care ministries in Ukraine.
In 2016, Morrow also moved to Ukraine for a time to complete research about Baptists in the region for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Missouri. He heard and has written about the testimony of Ukrainian Baptists who suffered Soviet persecution.
“Many Ukrainian Baptists have vivid first-hand memories of past persecution. Others know, second hand, from the memories of parents and grandparents the perpetual, personal and pervasive marginalization which so many experienced through domination, intimidation and alienation,” Morrow said, urging Missouri Baptists to pray that their brothers and sisters in Christ would persevere in the faith amid the current tensions.
Despite the persecution of the past and the political tensions of the present, Morrow said God is working faithfully through Baptist believers throughout Ukraine and other leaders like Pyzh at the UBTS. While spending time in the country, Morrow has seen firsthand the faith of Ukrainian Christians even amid the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, which began in 2014.
“It was a wonderful experience and deeply humbling,” he said, “to watch the living faith of fellow believers in Ukraine in the midst of such insecurity.”
Nevertheless, Morrow urged Missouri Baptists to pray for peace in the region, to pray for families and to pray “for God’s sovereignty to be made know to all, and that many unbelievers may come to faith in Christ through circumstances such as these.”
Malcolm Yarnell, who taught Pyzh at SWBTS more than a decade ago, has likewise asked Southern Baptists to pray for Christians in both Ukraine and Russia.
“I would pray first of all for peace and justice between the two nations,” said Yarnell, SWBTS research professor of theology. “I think that’s important for us to pray for, because we want human beings to be respected and to be treated with human dignity. And in wartime, if war were to happen, human dignity seems to go out the window.”
He described his second prayer request, “for the witness of the churches,” as closer to his heart.
“Both Russian Baptists and Ukrainian Baptists believe firmly in religious liberty,” Yarnell said. “They are respectful towards the state, but … they see themselves as coming under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and they want to serve Christ and they want to witness for Christ.
“Like Baptists in so many places, they have a strong legacy of asking for religious liberty, and this is true of all of the Baptists there.”
Pyzh encouraged churches in the U.S. to reach out to any Christians and churches in Ukraine with whom they’ve already established relationships, to earnestly pray for Ukrainian Baptists and to find ways to provide humanitarian relief in the event of armed conflict.
“I think if U.S. churches will renew their connections with Ukrainian churches, with Ukrainian entities, and ensure that yes, we are with you, yes, we are praying for you, yes, we are ready to step in and help, in case you need that help,” Pyzh said, “that would be a tremendous encouragement for our people, that they are not alone in that.”
The evangelical church in the U.S. is in a better position than the evangelical church in Europe, Pyzh said.
“You have to understand, the evangelical church in Europe is not that strong,” he said. “But the evangelical church and Baptist church in particular in the United States are a lot stronger.”
About 2,000 churches are members of the Ukrainian Baptist Union, comprising about 100,000 believers. UBTS, located about 1,000 miles west of the Ukrainian-Russian border, has graduates serving in 230 Ukrainian churches, Pyzh said.
It’s unclear how humanitarian aide would be delivered in the event of war, he said, but pointed to such groups as the American Red Cross.