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In Ukraine Towns Ravaged by War, Evangelical Missionaries Find Fertile Ground

In Ukraine Towns Ravaged by War, Evangelical Missionaries Find Fertile Ground

(Sergei N. Kosyak led a service at the Christian Aid Center of the Transfiguration Church in Maryinka, Ukraine, last month. Credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times)

March 3, 2016

MARYINKA, Ukraine -- On a recent frosty morning, a group of evangelical missionaries piled out of a Volkswagen minivan to meet elderly and poor people who had gathered on a roadside here. They handed out loaves of bread and Bibles, declaring, "Jesus wants peace!"

In the distance, the fighting that had been rattling along the front all morning picked up. A pastor, Yevgeny M. Medvedev, raised his hands and said, "Let us pray."

By the time he had wrapped up the Lord's Prayer, loud explosions were echoing through the town. "Deliver us from evil," he said, finishing with an "amen" just as a shell exploded in the distance.

Maryinka, a Ukrainian-held town of apartment blocks and one-story homes outside the rebel capital of Donetsk, has become a hot spot not only for fighting, but also for saving souls.

As Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists carry on an almost forgotten fight in half-deserted towns like this one, despite a year-old cease-fire, several well-organized evangelical groups are staging a campaign of their own. Based on their accounts and evidence seen here, they are finding fertile ground for their efforts.

Volunteers affiliated with the Christian Aid Center of the Transfiguration Church in Maryinka distributed bread to the town's residents. Credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Maryinka lies in what Ukrainians call the "gray zone," between or close to the positions of government troops and Russian-backed rebels. While virtually everyone in eastern Ukraine has suffered in the nearly two years of war, residents of these areas have endured even more hardship.

About 6,000 civilians, including 350 children, remain in Maryinka, about half of the prewar population. Two schools remain open, though kindergartens, not much in demand in a place where nobody works, have closed.

In places, it is a town of bombed-out houses and overgrown yards, where people shuffle quickly across streets exposed to the high-powered sniper rifles of the separatists on the outskirts.

Like many towns along the line of contact between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces, Maryinka is without natural gas or hot water, because it is too dangerous for municipal workers to fix the holes torn in the pipes by shelling.

People in such places follow a glum routine of hauling firewood, waiting in lines for handouts of bread and groceries, and sleeping in root cellars.

The Ukrainian soldiers, bivouacked on the edge of town, are not much better off. In their dugouts, rough-hewed logs heaped with dirt form the roofs and discarded packing crates keep boots off the muddy floor. Clothes hang drying from nails on the wall.

There is sporadic fighting during the day, when monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe roam in armored white S.U.V.s. Only after they leave at 6 p.m. does the heavy mortar fire begin, said Lt. Col. Mikhailo M. Prokopiv, the Ukrainian commander in the town.

"Maybe their leadership objects to them working at night," he said. "Anyway, at 6:30, the shooting starts."

Mortar bombs regularly overshoot the combatants' positions and land in the town instead, creating a never-ending nightmare for residents.

Natasha O. Ivanenko, one of those picking up fresh bread from the missionaries, said the explosions frequently frightened her 2-year-old son, Sergei.

"My child is afraid," she said. "He says, 'Mama, boom.' And I say, 'Yes, Seryozha, boom, boom.' "

Evangelical missionaries began to appear here in the weeks after the Ukrainian Army pushed back a large rebel assault last summer.

Some Protestant denominations have deep historical roots in Ukraine, while others spread after the breakup of the Soviet Union, competing in the east of the country with the Russian wing of the Orthodox Church.

Yet the speed of the evangelicals' expansion in the conflict area is new, as is their approach of blending humanitarian aid with proselytizing.

"When Jesus was on Earth, he fed people and people followed him for that reason, too," said Lyubov V. Shpikhernyuk, a missionary. And finding religion has always been easier during a war, she said, because "when fear comes, people are open to God."

The missionaries have established combined aid distribution points and churches in 10 towns on the Ukrainian side of the border, according to Sergei N. Kosyak, the leader of the site in Maryinka, called the Christian Aid Center of the Transfiguration Church.

Mr. Kosyak estimates that, in the course of a year, these sites have drawn 600 people to regular religious services, a few of whom have been baptized.

Evangelical churches in the United States are underwriting some of the aid for the missionaries, who are all Russian speakers from Ukraine or other former Soviet states.

One church in the city of Slovyansk north of here, the Good News Church, has opened a school specifically to train missionaries for work in this conflict zone. So far, about 75 people have completed the one-month course and deployed along the 300-mile front.

It is a spiritual turning of the tables, of sorts. When pro-Russian rebels held Slovyansk, they arrested and drove out evangelicals. Then the city changed hands, and the missionaries found their way back.

Starting with two followers in July when he opened the site, Mr. Kosyak has built a congregation of 70 people, with a bakery, a church choir and various services on offer, like delivering firewood.

That number rivals the turnout for Sunday services at the Orthodox Church of the Kazan Virgin in Maryinka.

In an interview, the Orthodox priest, the Rev. Sergi Geiko, said he disapproved of luring doubters to God with material rewards, like groceries or bread. The foreign donors helping the evangelicals, he said, were trespassing in Orthodox land.

"This is not only a political war, but a spiritual war," he said. "This is a crusade. The West is helping them."

Mr. Kosyak was unapologetic. "He thinks we are competitors, and that the people of Maryinka are his property," he said of Father Geiko.

Out at the roadside prayer, as explosions thudded along the positions at the edge of town, Mr. Medvedev, the pastor, took pains to speak of unity in a town with enough conflict.

"Hate divides, love unites," he said. "Use this chance, call his name, bring him into your life. When he comes like bread, there will be no hunger. I want you to think of this, my dears -- we don't want people lost to God."


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