The majority religion in Ukraine, and across most former Soviet states, is Orthodox Christianity. Kiev is home to two Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and Moscow is home to a distinct Russian denomination of Orthodoxy—led by the Moscow patriarchy, which has sizable following among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s minority Protestant community, however, has grown steadily since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991; making it Europe’s unlikely Bible Belt. Although its exact size has yet to be enumerated, experts estimate that the more than 10,000 Protestant congregations scattered across the country now compose between 2 and 3% of the population—outnumbering Catholics, Muslims, or Jews. (These are pre-2013 numbers, and so include Crimea’s substantial Muslim Tatar population.)
Following the outbreak of civil war in the politically and economically unstable east, armed groups affiliated with the breakaway People’s Republics of Donetsk (DPR) are targeting these communities, occupying churches and forcing congregations into hiding, or refuge in Kiev-controlled areas of the country.
Some experts theorize that the appeal of Protestantism lies in novelty—its inherent Americanness, and subsequent anti-Sovietness, in some cases. Specifically, Protestant denominations with identifiably American roots—Evangelicals, Jehova’s Witnesses, and Baptists—have gained a particularly strong foothold in Ukraine; building, primarily through missionary work, what amounts to a Dallas on the Dneiper.
The bulk of that missionary work was made possible through the International Religious Freedom Act, passed by Congress in 1998, to “express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion,” and to “authorize United States actions in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries.” This act facilitated relationships between American and Ukrainian churches, and opened up funding streams for the rapid establishment of more Ukrainian Protestant congregations, all in under two decades.
Ukraine’s history of religious diversity also made it attractive to Protestant missionaries, says Catherine Wanner, a professor of anthropology and history at Pennsylvania State University, and a specialist in Ukrainian religions. “Legislatively, it’s far easier for minority faith groups to set themselves up in Ukraine than it is in, say, Russia,” she tells Quartz. The presence of three, large Orthodox churches kept any one particular faith from gaining primacy, cultivating a distinct pluralism, and thus providing a base from which American missionaries could proselytize in more theologically homogenous parts of the former Soviet Union.
But since Russian Orthodoxy is the predominant faith in Ukraine’s separatist eastern regions, it’s unsurprising that pro-Russian separatists view Protestantism as a kind of existential threat. “The separatists say all Protestants are American spies,” Yurii Radchenko, 46, a Protestant from the eastern town of Zymohiria told a reporter for Euromaidan Press.
The city of Donetsk, a longtime center for Ukrainian Protestantism, according to Wanner, is home to Donetsk Christian University, which has been occupied by pro-Russian rebels since July 2014. In Mar. 2015, a Vice News documentary team visited a local Protestant congregation, the Church of Jesus Christ, whose building was seized by pro-Russian forces. The church has been conducting secret services in the homes of its parishioners ever since. “It’s hard to argue with armed men, and we didn’t plan on arguing,” church elder Leonid Kryzhanovsky told Vice. “We knew who they were. They were armed men from the Donetsk People’s Republic. They said it plainly, ‘We only support the Orthodox church. Your Protestant churches shouldn’t be here.’”
“Persecution for religious beliefs, there was such persecution in Soviet days,” Kryzhanovsky recalled. “When Ukraine became independent, the persecution stopped.”
Some say the theocratic ideals of a some DPR fighters do not reflect the greater separatist movement. When Vice visited DPR offices to inquire about the republic’s official policies toward religious minorities, an official claimed, “Both the constitution and the declaration of independence guarantee everyone [freedom of religion]. You can go visit the synagogue, it is open, there’s a free soup kitchen there. People go there to eat, and so on.”
“According to the ideology we are building,” he noted, “we would very much like to maximally integrate the Orthodox church into areas that concern morals, in areas that concern family values, and so on… Orthodoxy is one of the foundations of our statehood, but at the same time, we are not trying to violate anyone’s rights.”
But a militiaman posted at an occupied Baptist church seemed to have only understood part of that rhetoric: “There is only one faith, Orthodoxy. I am Orthodox,” he told Vice. “It was left to us by our ancestors and the Baptists are schismatics. It’s American propaganda, which fills the heads of our people, the Russians, the Slavs, which results in what you see now—the war.”
“The Russian Orthodox church sees itself as uniting all eastern Slavs, or all Orthodox believers,” Wanner explains. “This is used to justify violence in Donetsk. It motivates some local people who see Orthodoxy as a mark of being Russian.” Russians or other Slavs who deviate from this are seen as heretical, even enemies of state.
It’s not hard to see why certain pro-Russian elements would hold fast to such dim views of Protestantism; a number of notable figures in the Ukrainian establishment, among them the former mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetsky, and exiled former parliamentarian Andriy Shkil. Missionary groups have used Ukraine as a base from which to proselytize in other former Soviet states, and even Ukraine’s former acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, now secretary of the national security and defense council, was once a Baptist pastor. His church, the Baptist Union, is the largest and fastest-growing Protestant denomination in neighboring Russia, where upwards of 90% of the missionaries and pastors are Ukrainian.
It’s a Holy Trinity of pro-Russian themes: erosion of Slavic culture, an invasion of Western ideals, and, as ever, a global conspiracy against the Russian people.