Many of the people who have stayed behind in Ukraine’s militarized areas are those who cannot run away: the elderly, children and people with disabilities.
“Certain pastors and their families have made the conscious [and potentially dangerous] decision to remain in the region to serve,” Mary Raber writes in a January 2017 update. She serves through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and the Mennonite Mission Network in Ukraine.
Ivan (a pseudonym to protect his identity) is one of the few Ukrainian pastors who remain. He says, “Our modest ministry continues. As before [the current conflict], we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, help to rebuild believers’ homes . . . and we quietly preach the saving gospel of Christ. As it was in Soviet times, we do it in a semi-underground way.”
In a recent effort to control religious-based terrorism, new laws in Russia forbid the sharing of religious ideas anywhere except in a registered religious organization. “Many fear that even holding a Bible study in one’s own home, or explaining one’s faith to a co-worker, will now be punishable offenses,” says Raber.
The laws are expected to be applied also in separatist regions of Ukraine that are supported by Russia. “It will get harder for us. It is a time of lawlessness and the power of darkness,” says Ivan. “But we believe that hell will not destroy the church of Christ.”
The situation is complex. People scarcely discuss politics at all, writes Raber, which is a huge change from two years ago. The sense of frustration and anger increase the farther she travels to the eastern part of the country, closer to the fighting.
Friends who have relocated to a city that was part of the separatist regions, but was retaken by Ukraine, are frustrated with deliberately inefficient travellers’ checkpoints between Ukraine and the separatist areas. School policy forces children in Russian-language schools to take exams in Ukrainian. Children from the eastern provinces were taunted as “terrorists.”
“Once, all these people were close friends and co-workers,” writes Raber.
However, most people busy themselves with their daily affairs that are made more difficult by the poor economy. A friend of Raber’s who sells knitted goods in the big downtown Odessa market worries about how she is going to support her family, since no one has money to buy non-essentials. Her granddaughter and family arrived to escape shooting in the southeastern part of the country just as Raber was leaving the city.
Raber asks for prayers that “Christians would not withdraw but respond with compassion to those in need around them.”