Russian occupation authorities closed Grace Baptist Church in Melitopol on Sunday, September 11, during the church’s worship service. According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea, occupation authorities have now closed the city’s three largest evangelical Protestant churches in the last two months.
Meanwhile, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has learned that in the nearby village of Chkalovo in the Melitopol district, Russian Federation soldiers came to the church’s evening service on Wednesday September 21 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.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea has also confirmed that in Mariupol, occupation authorities closed the Kurchatov Church this month and are currently holding the church leader and his wife in an unknown location, after initially yielding to members’ appeals to release the leader and permit the church to remain open.
“At Grace Church in Melitopol on Sunday September 11, armed men entered the sanctuary while the congregation was singing a hymn,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Hyun Sook Foley. “They halted the worship service, registered the names of all those present, and detained several ministers.” Representative Foley says Grace Church’s pastor, Mikhail Britsyn, was ordered to leave the city within 48 hours.
According to Representative Foley, the worship service was being broadcast live, so online viewers witnessed the events. The video of the worship service has since been taken down, though Voice of the Martyrs Korea has obtained several screen shots.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea operates “Голос Мучеников – Корея”, a Russian language edition of its popular Facebook page on Christian persecution. Representative Foley says the organization remains in contact with Christians and churches who are currently in parts of Ukraine now under the control of pro-Russian forces, including the Melitopol district and Mariupol.
Grace Church in Melitopol.
Screen captures from the live broadcast of worship at Grace Church in Melitopol on September 11, as worship was interrupted by occupation forces.
Grace Church, Word of Life Church, and the Melitopol Church are the three largest Protestant congregations in Melitopol, according to Representative Foley.
She says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea has confirmed reports that the building of Word of Life Church 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. Representative Foley says that services continued at the church until August, when they were officially halted.
Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea has also confirmed reports that the building of Melitopol Christian Church 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 Representative 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 to Voice of the Martyrs Korea that the church’s cross has been removed and the church turned into a “cultural-sports-entertainment complex”.
The church in the village of Chkalovo, Melitopol district. Soldiers entered the Wednesady evening service on September 21 and ordered the church building closed.
File photo of the campus of Melitopol Christian Church before being seized by occupation authorities. (Photo credit: Dima Antifeev)
Confiscation of church buildings and detainment of pastors is also occurring in other Russia-occupied cities like Mauripol, says Representative Foley.
“In Mariupol this month, military officials asked the Kurchatov Church to open their prayer house for organizing a referendum, but the church members declined,” says Representative Foley. She says that authorities came during the week and sealed up the prayer house. But church members re-opened the prayer house for their usual Sunday meeting.
“As the church was worshiping, the military came and took away church leader Leonid Ponomarev, who was presiding,” says Representative Foley. “So after worship concluded, the brothers went to the military office with documents proving that the house was private property. Even according to their regulations, the referendum should be held in an administrative building, not in a private home.”
According to Representative Foley, the attitude of the authorities initially changed. “They even began to talk politely with the church members,” she says. Authorities looked through the documents and released the church leader.
But then the authorities reversed course.
“They have now confiscated the building with the intent of holding the referendum there, and Leonid Ponomarev and his wife Tatyana Nikolaevna are being detained in an unknown location,” says Representative Foley. “We are closely following reports that he is charged with participating in extremist activities. On that basis, authorities issued a warrant to search the house of prayer on Kurchatov Street for extremist literature.”
Kurchatov Church in Mariupol. Occupation authorities closed the Kurchatov Church this month and are currently holding the church leader and his wife in an unknown location
Kurchatov Church in Mariupol.
Representative Foley says that though the church buildings have been seized and church leaders have been detained in Melitopol district and Mariupol, the congregations continue to operate. “Ukraine has a tradition of underground church, extending back to Soviet times,” says Representative Foley. “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.”
Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea is providing emergency assistance to local church congregations and individual Christians who are continuing to engage in faithful witness during the present Russia/Ukraine conflict. Donations can be made to the organization’s 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.