A Christian radio broadcaster in Ukraine is calling on Christians in Ukraine and Russia to unite as tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church materialize against the backdrop of a simmering conflict between the two countries.
The ongoing escalation between Ukraine and Russia intensified Monday, as Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two breakaway regions in Ukraine that have sizable pro-Russian populations as independent states. In response to Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, President Joe Biden announced his intention “to begin to impose sanctions in response far beyond the steps we and our allies and partners had implemented in 2014” to ensure that Putin does not move further into Ukraine.
Biden further described Putin’s actions as “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” While leaders on the world stage have focused on the geopolitical implications of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the tension also has spiritual implications for those living in the region.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Daniel Johnson, who runs an Evangelical broadcasting organization providing Christian radio throughout Russia at a time when the government has stifled broadcasts operated by Evangelical Christians, elaborated on the situation on the ground and its implications for people of faith living in Ukraine.
“Christians are … hoping that the Russians don’t come too far because churches will definitely be shut down in the areas that they take over because … that’s their practice and that’s their history,” Johnson, the founder of the New Life Radio satellite network who is based in Odessa, Ukraine, said.
Johnson maintained that what was happening on the ground in his city of Odessa conflicts with Putin’s insistence that Ukrainians want to become part of Russia.
“As of yesterday [Monday], there was a massive protest in the city of Odessa, where ... people are saying, ‘Hey, this is Ukraine and we don’t want Russia here.' [It's] unlike ... what Putin claimed last night, that the people in [the breakaway regions] were saying that they want to part of Russia. Well, here in Odessa, they’re saying, ‘we don’t want to be a part of Russia and stay away.’”
Johnson began developing the first Christian radio station in Russia in 1993. The show went on the air in 1996.
“For the last 20 years, our focus has been providing Christian programming to people throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics,” he said.
Johnson initially operated out of the far east of Russia. While he spent approximately 20 years in Moscow, he now operates out of Odessa, where he moved after the enactment of “extremely restrictive Russian federal laws on mass media and religion in telecommunications.”
Odessa, he added, is located “in the very south of Ukraine, on the Black Sea, not far from Crimea.”
Johnson shared with CP his vision for the role of the Ukrainian Christian community as the threat of escalating conflict looms.
“This is a great time for the church in Ukraine to be strong and be an example and witness for Christ … knowing that … God is in control … God is sovereign and ... everything is according to His plan so we don’t worry about it,” Johnson asserted. “We go on the air explaining to Christians that this is their time, this is their time to be a witness for Christ, and it’s really a wonderful opportunity for the Church despite all the chaos that can be happening here.”
Johnson attributed some of the division in the region to the schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
“Tanks are rolling down from Russia, Russian Orthodox priests are blessing the tanks,” he said. “The Ukrainian Orthodox priests are blessing the Ukrainian soldiers to fight against Russia, so it’s a tragic scene where two brother faiths, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox, have completely sided on the national goals of their one country.”
“They are not acting like they are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, first and foremost, but rather, they represent nationalism. And that’s not who we are as Christians,” he lamented. “Our ultimate loyalty is to Christ and His Kingdom rather than the nationality of the land we happen to find ourselves in. And that’s not something that the Orthodox Church is not able to accommodate. … It’s a tragedy that that does not happen.”
Johnson said that the Evangelical community in Ukraine is “working mainly to just put the word of God out there ... to the general public and even to the Orthodox listeners who like to hear. We’re teaching them the word of God and saying, ‘Trust the Lord and your ultimate allegiance is to Jesus, not to the leadership of any one country that … you find yourself in.”
For his part, Johnson is an Evangelical who has “never been part of the Orthodox Church.”
He detailed his efforts to “bring Christians together” and contrasted the approach of the Evangelicals with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church’s focus on “nationalism and patriotism.” He rejoiced that Evangelicals have "never been controlled by the state, nor will we.”
The American public has given a cool reception to the idea of deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine, which has been touted by many in Washington as an effective solution to the conflict.
A poll released by Quinnipiac University last week found that 57% of Americans believe that the U.S. should not send troops to the Eastern European country if Russia invades, while 32% think the U.S. has an obligation to deploy troops there in the event of an invasion.
At the same time, 55% of Americans predict that the tensions between Ukraine and Russia will lead to war, while 30% disagree. On the other hand, a majority of Americans (54%) support Biden’s decision to deploy thousands of troops to Eastern Europe to support members of NATO, the group of countries formed during the Cold War era to deter the Soviet Union.
Johnson concluded that “the Ukrainians really are on their own” because “Ukraine is not a member of NATO.”
When asked whether or not Ukraine should join NATO, a prospect that alarms Putin, Johnson told CP that “I don’t think they can technically meet the standards of NATO to enter membership.”
“We need to be a force of prayer for peace between these nations and trust God to determine the outcome of the lives of the people both in Ukraine and Russia, because in many ways … it’s a brotherhood of nations. We need to be focused on praying that God intervenes and His will is done because … there’s no real military solution from the U.S. to the problem in Ukraine,” he added. “It’s either you stay out of it, or if you’re going to get in it, it will escalate to the point where it will be beyond people’s control and we’ve been through those scenarios before.”
While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the United States provided security assurances to the Eastern European country in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
As part of the agreement, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the guarantee that “The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” would “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine” if it were to “become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”
All signatories to the Budapest Memorandum also agreed to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.” Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent actions suggest that it has not lived up to its promises and supporters of the U.S. taking military action to deter Russian expansion into Ukraine believe that the U.S. is obligated to do so because of the Budapest Memorandum.
Johnson concluded that regardless of what happens in the geopolitical arena regarding Russia and Ukraine, Christians in the U.S. still have a role to play in ensuring peace in the region.
“We need to encourage Christians in America to invest in broadcasting the Gospel throughout Russia and Ukraine and Belarus as our best way to help these people," he said, "not through political or economic actions, but actually investing in ministries that communicate the Gospel and teach the scriptures on a daily basis.”
“We hope that Christians throughout America will partner with us so we can actually do this night and day and get the Gospel into communities throughout Russia. Most people don’t know that 99 percent of all communities in Russia have no local Christian station and when the government prevents the ability of Christians to develop media, to develop Christian stations, we provide that coverage. And we hope that people in America will join us.”
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org