How Russia persecutes occupied Christians; Myroslava housing complex bombed
Inside a terrifying interrogation room with a Baptist pastor. And in our reporter’s notebook, terrible news: Myroslava describes what it was like when her complex in Kyiv was hit yesterday.
Editor’s Note: A significant number of Republicans in the House and Senate have stalled Ukraine aid this week. Many of them are evangelical Christians. Know anyone who would be interested in reading about the persecution of Christians in occupied territories, or about human-centered stories in Ukraine more broadly?
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The thing that Tymur Kosymbekov remembers most vividly about his interrogations was the blood on the walls.
“I was told that they would find out everything. And if they found out that I was really a spy, they would shoot me here," he recalled with horror.
Kosymbekov, a Protestant Baptist pastor, lived in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which sits right on the shores of the Sea of Azov.
He does not remember how long exactly he was held by the Russians. But Tymur said that while he was sitting in the basement, he heard regular gunfire: Ukrainian troops were trying to drive the Russians out.
At one point, he heard his Russian captors talking.
And what they said indicated that his life could soon be over.
He heard them mull over executing him, so as to not waste time questioning him.
"There were corpses of our Ukrainian soldiers lying at the entrance to this Russian base, and no one had cleaned them up,” Tymur said. “And I realized that it was no problem for them to shoot me."
Since the beginning of the war with Russia in 2014, Russian occupiers have put pressure on Protestant communities, while favoring Orthodox churches that were subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate and, in turn, to Moscow.
Protestant Christians were the victims of 34 percent of persecution events tracked by the Institute for the Study of War, the D.C.-based think tank said last year. Church workers and pastors have been regularly summoned for interrogation in places like Donetsk, and there have been numerous cases of people disappearing.
The Russians have also begun to audit the property of other faiths more frequently. They seem determined to suppress not only Protestant movements, but also the local Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and Muslim centers that are not under the control of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Russia.
Evangelical Christians, such as those of the Baptist denomination like Tymur, are frequently harassed by Russian authorities who consider them to be spies. Tymur ended up in captivity only because of a desire to help a friend. When the full-scale invasion broke out in 2022, he begged Russian troops to take a congregant with cancer to the hospital.
In the days prior, the Russians had repeatedly accused Tymur of being a spy. He knew he was taking a risk by seeking help. But rather than assist his friend, they detained him and began interrogating him.
The Russians threatened him, and even jabbed him in the back with a machine gun. After an entire day, they realized he was an ordinary citizen with no ties to espionage.
The defining moment came when they searched his phone.
"They saw my photos from [church] services, they probably realized that I was just an ordinary citizen,” he said. None of the photos would be useful for espionage purposes. “So the Russians just said ‘Run home.”’
It was a long way back. Tymur had been taken out of town. During his travels through the city in those first months, he saw some terribly traumatic things: hundreds of dead bodies, many of them simply eaten by dogs.
Even worse, curfew was about to start. If you violated it, you could be shot – that's how the Russians searched for Ukrainian soldiers in the city. He ran as fast as he could, and ultimately made it back to his church, near Azovstal steel works in Mariupol.
"Everybody thought I was dead. And when I came back, everyone was very surprised," Tymur said with a smile on his face.
But one day their church was visited by more Russians.
"They stopped the whole service and started checking [our] documents. But at that moment a heavy firefight started right in our yard. Ukrainian snipers shot them. We had dead soldiers lying in our yard for several days after that, and we didn't know what to do with them," Tymur said. "When the Russian soldiers came, they did not see it as a church, but as a kind of cult.”
Another person who has experienced Russia’s disdainful attitude towards Protestants is Oleksandr Vaschinin. He has been a Protestant since childhood. And even then in Ukraine, during the Soviet era, he was disrespected for attending a non-Orthodox church.
As an adult, he became the pastor of an Adventist congregation in Donetsk. And when the city was occupied by the Russians in 2014, he stayed there for five years, until 2019.
Every Saturday the church held services as usual. However, almost every time they were visited by strangers, who weren’t just there to worship.
"You see that they were not ordinary people, they were soldiers. They were with you all the time… Every week or two there were searches. People would come with machine guns. Sometimes a tank would come. They would climb the stairs and enter the church. They were looking for everything, and you were standing there at gunpoint. And you have to tell them what, where, how..." Vaschinin said.
If they found a book in Ukrainian, they asked what it was doing here. They accused Ivanovych of collaborating with the Ukrainian authorities.
Another problem for the Adventist Church was that its founders were from the United States.
"There were times when they said, 'You are Americans, this is an American church, this is not [a Russian] church. We said we have been in Ukraine for almost a hundred years. But no one believed us," Oleksandr Vaschinin said.
And if someone disagreed with something, they could be taken to the basement, where they were tortured or abused, or imprisoned.
"We were treated like dogs. They beat us. Some were killed. Some disappeared. We had a pastor who was beaten very badly. One pastor from Horlivka [occupied Donetsk Region] was kept in prison for 21 days," Oleksandr Vaschinin recalls.
The pastor stayed in Donetsk until the so-called Russian authorities forced everyone to get Russian passports. Vaschinin and most of the other pastors refused and decided to leave their hometown.
Right now he has no plans to return to Donetsk. Neither does Tymur plan to return to Mariupol until Ukraine liberates it from Russian control.
"I don't even want to think about it. And all my friends who had to leave and scatter, we are all praying and waiting for Maruipol to return to Ukraine, to come home, to serve and rebuild, to help the people. We are waiting for this," Tymur said confidently.
After the paywall: Myroslava walks us through a terrifying event – a missile hitting her housing complex in Kyiv. She describes how it all unfolded from her point of view. In the news: An anti-war critic is prevented from running in the Russian election. Tucker leaves Moscow.