Protestants from the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine say they are being persecuted by the Russian Orthodox Church. Many evangelicals have left because of a crackdown on religious freedom.
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The war in eastern Ukraine has driven nearly a million people from their homes. Many left because those houses were damaged or they fear they'll be caught in more fighting. But there's another group of people fleeing the self-declared separatist republics. Those who say they fear persecution because of their religious beliefs. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Pastor Oleg Regetsiy heads a small evangelical Protestant congregation in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. Members of the Raduga or rainbow church saying and pray in tongues - foreign languages they've not learned or in languages they've not heard on Earth at all. This is Regetsiy's daughter Masha singing in what she says are Angel Voices.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MASHA: (Singing in Angel Voices).
FLINTOFF: Regetsiy says he has complete religious freedom in Kharkiv, which is controlled by the Ukrainian government. But his brand of worship might not be welcome in the nearby Donetsk People's Republic, the enclave carved out last year by Russian-backed separatists. The leaders there adopted a constitution that names the Russian Orthodox Church, led by the patriarch in Moscow, as the Republic's official religion. Oleg Regetsiy says the separatists have closed or taken over Protestant churches and harassed their members, pushing many to seek refuge in and around Kharkiv.
PASTOR OLEG REGETSIY: (Through interpreter) There are many refugees here because of religion. They had to leave their homes because they couldn't do their services in a free way there.
FLINTOFF: Regetsiy and his congregation help some of the refugees collecting clothing for families who are now living at a camp outside the city. At the camp, people gather every day for a prayer meeting in the small community room. Their voices mix in individual prayers and finally merge into the Lord's Prayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYERS)
FLINTOFF: Oleg Vasilchenko is a miner who brought his family here from the separatist region because of the dangers of the war. But he says he knows other Protestants who've experienced religious persecution.
OLEG VASILCHENKO: (Through interpreter) We have a friend who's suffered because of his religious beliefs. When he was hurt and lying in a hospital, one rebel called him a sectarian, cursed him and threw him out of the hospital despite his injuries.
FLINTOFF: A Protestant pastor who lives in the separatist-controlled area told NPR by telephone that he's been allowed to continue all his activities except for visiting convicts in a local prison. That would require him to register his church with the separatist authorities. And he's not ready to do that yet. He asked that neither he nor his church be named because he fears retaliation.
UNIDENTIFIED PASTOR: (Through interpreter) In one town, the Church of Christ building was taken, and the preacher had to move away. Another Church of Christ building was taken in Donetsk. And in our town, they took a Jehovah's Witness meeting hall.
FLINTOFF: In some places, the separatists are using seized Protestant churches as barracks or for weapons storage. Jay Don Rogers is a missionary and teacher from Lubbock, Texas. He came to the Donetsk 15 years ago to found and lead the Ukrainian Bible Institute there. He says he moved the institute last year after Ukrainian friends advised him that he and his wife might not be safe after the separatists took over the city. Rogers confirms that churches have been taken over.
JAY DON ROGERS: They actually came in with guns, put people on the ground, said these buildings now belong to us. You have about two hours to get out.
FLINTOFF: Rogers has reopened the Bible Institute in Kiev. Many of his friends and former students remain in areas taken over by the separatists. But with conditions so uncertain, he says, it's unclear whether they can safely remain. Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.