11 March 2022

Ukraine: Eastern Europe's 'Bible Belt'

St. George's Cathedral, Lviv
Earlier this week I wrote about the rift in the communion of Orthodox Churches over Ukraine and how it exacerbated tensions in that country. Today I will add more to the picture of Ukrainian religious life by surveying the so-called Greek Catholic and evangelical churches.

From an outsider's vantage point, the Greek Catholic Church looks like a hybrid of two traditions. It is one of 23 eastern-rite or Byzantine-rite churches in communion with Rome. These churches appear eastern in most respects, celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or something similar, and reciting the Creed without the contested filioque clause. Its priests wear distinctive Byzantine garb. Like their Orthodox brethren--or perhaps rivals--the clergy are married and have families. Their buildings conform more to eastern architectural patterns than to western gothic or romanesque patterns. Nevertheless, these churches pray for the Pope and recognize him to be the head of the universal church. They are largely self-governing, unlike the churches of the Roman rite, which are directly under the Pope. Each represents a distinctive ecclesiastical and liturgical tradition.

Many of the reforms to the Roman-rite churches mandated by the Second Vatican Council did not apply to the eastern-rite churches, which retained their ancient liturgies and usages. Some Catholics of the Roman rite who disliked the new vernacular mass fled to the eastern churches in the wake of Vatican II.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church came into existence when several Orthodox jurisdictions in eastern Poland entered into communion with Rome at the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596. It is the largest of the eastern-rite churches, with a membership of some 4.5 million. Concentrated in western Ukraine, it is the spiritual home of those Ukrainians most sympathetic with western Europe and the European Union. The Orthodox often refer to its members as Uniates, a term that Greek Catholics themselves dislike.

The Greek Catholic Church was persecuted by Stalin, even as he tried to rally the Orthodox Church to the defence of Mother Russia during the Great Patriotic War. In 1946 he suppressed the Church, forcibly reuniting it with the Moscow Patriarchate and handing its property over to the latter. The reason was obvious: Catholics of any rite owed loyalty to a foreign potentate, namely, the Pope. A totalitarian regime cannot tolerate a diversity of loyalties among its subjects. Stalin could more easily control the Orthodox Church, a domestic institution with a long tradition of subservience to political rulers, than it could a Catholic church with transnational ties. In 1989, as communism was receding in the Soviet Union, the Greek Catholic Church, which had functioned underground for 43 years, was again legally recognized by the state.

Here in Hamilton, Ontario, we have three Ukrainian churches: two Greek Catholic churches and an Orthodox cathedral. Among Ukrainian Canadians, Greek Catholics outnumber the Orthodox, as indicated in the 1991 census.

Before moving on to the evangelical churches, I should indicate that there is also a small Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, whose members are Rusyns, a Slavic people largely inhabiting the narrow western region in the Carpathian Mountains once belonging to Czechoslovakia between the two world wars.

Religions in Ukraine*

Now on to the evangelicals, who make up only around 2 percent of Ukraine's population, but as much as 5 percent in the western regions. Although small in number, they have contributed much to the revitalization of Christianity in that country. The largest groups are the Baptists and Pentecostals, who are organized into the All-Ukrainian Union of the Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, the All-Ukraine Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith-Pentecostals, the Union of Independent Communities of Christians of the Evangelical Faith-Pentecostals, and other bodies. Lutheran and Reformed denominations also exist, one of the oldest being the Sub-Carpathian Reformed Church, whose origins go back to the 16th century and whose members are mostly Hungarian speaking.

Ukraine contains the largest number of Baptists outside of the United States. About the largest Baptist group, a wikipedia article offers this information:

Nearly 90% of Baptists in Ukraine are united in the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists (AUС EСB), established in 1994 at the 22nd Convention of the ECB of Ukraine. Today, the union includes 3 seminaries, 2 universities and 15 Bible colleges, and is estimated to have 150,000 conscious believers, and about 300,000 people that attend church services in more than 2,800 churches, with 3,160 clergy members. The union is engaged in publishing activity and has an extended mass media network. The AUС EСB is governed by a council composed of senior presbyters (bishops) of regional associations headed by the president of the council. From 1990–2006 the council was headed by Hryhorii Komendant. From May 2006 it has been headed by Vyacheslav Nesteruk. The union closely cooperates with Ukrainian Baptists in the diaspora. The AUС EСB is a member of the European Baptist Federation and the Baptist World Alliance.

Pentecostals number around 105,000 and once again are concentrated largely in western Ukraine. Both groups were persecuted during the Soviet era but flourished afterwards, as independent Ukraine pursued a more open policy towards minority religious groups, enabling a wider amount of religious freedom than that permitted in the neighbouring Russian Federation. One of the centres of the evangelical movement is the city of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv which has suffered greatly during these opening weeks of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Christianity Today recently posted an article about Irpin: Ministries Evacuate as Russians Reach Irpin, the Evangelical Hub of Ukraine. (Note that the article is available also in French and Russian.) An excerpt:

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s “evangelical patriarch” Gregory [Hryhorii] Kommendant invited Christian ministries to join him in his hometown, 16 miles northwest of the capital, where he served as president of the All-Ukraine Baptist Union.

As of a few days ago, about 25 ministries operated out of Irpin, including Child Evangelism Fellowship, Youth With a Mission, Youth for Christ, the International Fellowship for Evangelical Students, and Samaritan’s Purse.

Once home to a single evangelical church, Irpin now boasts 13.

“We were here for 20 years, and neighbors never set foot in our church,” said Romanuk. “Now they are living in our basement, praying with us, and have become our friends.”
Describing Irpin as “secular,” Romanuk described his 700-member Baptist congregation as the largest church in the city of 60,000 people. But now, only a team of five remain, called to stay behind and minister to those under siege.
During the Soviet era, Ukraine had the reputation of being the Union's "Bible Belt," as levels of religious observance were higher there than elsewhere. This status continues to the present, although the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 effectively ended that region's part in it: Europe’s ‘Unlikely Bible Belt’ Officially Disappears. It remains to be seen how the current war will affect the evangelical population of Ukraine. Thus far the war is limited to the mostly Russian-speaking districts of Ukraine, and not to the west where there is greater religious diversity.

My own connection with Ukrainian evangelicalism is through the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kyiv, whose journal, Християнська думка, published an article of mine. The Seminary opened in 2000. Please pray for everyone connected with this ministry, located in a city currently under siege. If Russia succeeds in taking over Ukraine, it will impose its own policies towards minority religious groups, with whom its government, supported by the Moscow Patriarchate, is singularly unsympathetic.

* The purple areas on the map show the regions where the Greek Catholic Church predominates. The red areas indicate an Orthodox majority. The light blue areas show a Protestant presence.

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