Ukraine Protestants Target of Russian Orthodox 'Jihad'?
SLAVYANSK, Ukraine - Peter Dudnik is convinced that the masked gunmen swallowing up large swaths of eastern Ukraine are a serious threat to evangelical Christians.
Dudnik is a senior leader of Good News Church in Slavyansk, Ukraine. In an exclusive interview, Dudnik told CBN News the pro-Russian rebels "didn't treat Christians well because they consider the Orthodox Church far superior than any other church."
"They also believe that Protestant Christians are American spies and since America is the enemy, evangelical Christians are also the enemy," he explained.
Armed Priests Seize Church
Dudnik should know. On April 12, insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs took control of his city. Days later some of those men showed up at his church.
"They came to our church and said 'We are going to live here.' They arrested our senior pastor. I told them I wanted to go with him but they refused," he recalled.
Good News is the largest evangelical church in Slavyansk.
"The rebels told us we couldn't hold our services anymore. Then two Orthodox priests, including one armed with a gun, said our church belonged to them and that they would start holding services in it," Dudnik said.
It was a dangerous time for people living in Slavyansk.
"Yes, life in our city changed dramatically. The people who had the guns were calling the shots," Dudnik said.
Not only did the Orthodox priests take over his church for services, Dudnik says rebels used the church basement to store bullets, rocket launchers and other artillery equipment. CBN News obtained exclusive pictures of the church basement.
"I was so shocked to see those images because the whole basement was filled with weapons. You can see hundreds of boxes that could fit in at least three big trucks. Some of the boxes contained mines, grenade launchers and thousands of rounds of ammunition," Dudnik said.
And then there's a video which was uploaded to YouTube by a rebel soldier showing two Russian tanks in the back of Dudnik's church compound.
"When I saw this on the Internet I was horrified!" Dudnik said. "You can hear the rebels giving the tank operator coordinates to target Ukrainian army positions. The entire time I'm watching the video I was expecting the Ukrainians to fire back and end up destroying my church. Thank God that didn't happen!"
An Unholy Alliance?
Then Dudnik revealed what shocked him most. As the tanks fired their payloads, two priests were videotaped standing behind the tanks -- next to the church's back door - reciting Orthodox prayers.
"You can tell the priests are there to give rebels spiritual support, to bless their mission, to pray for them. I've even seen videos of Orthodox priests blessing tanks before going into battle," he said.
Dudnik says Russian media has accused him and other evangelical leaders of starting the chaos in the country. Dudnik says he's even been accused of collaborating with the Ukrainian army - charges he flatly denies.
Dudnik believes the Russian Orthodox Church is using the rebels to silence evangelicals in the east. Some Christian leaders likened it to Islamic radicals' brutal campaign in the Mideast, calling it "Orthodox jihad."
"The war in my country is more than just about the capture of Ukrainian territory or a change in the government," he told CBN News. "There's a real war against the Protestant Church by radical elements within the Russian Orthodox Church."
A recent New York Times investigation says there's mounting evidence of ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and pro-Russian rebels. A claim Moscow and Orthodox officials have denied.
To get an Orthodox perspective, CBN News wanted to interview one of Slavyansk's top priests with reported ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. But Father Nikolai Fomenko refused and repeatedly asked us to turn off our cameras.
He eventually agreed but not before trying to confiscate our microphones and camera. CBN News asked why Orthodox priests would conduct prayers during a pro-Russian rebel offensive inside an evangelical church compound.
"This is false information," Father Fomenko told CBN News. "I can you tell you this is 100 percent false. This video has been edited to make it look like that. You can do anything these days. I tell you 100 percent this is a lie!"
CBN News asked Fomenko if he supported the pro-Russian insurgents. He refused to answer. Instead gave us the following analysis of situation:
"The media is at fault -- go ahead! You can you record this!" Fomenko said. "The mass media is sowing confusion and conflict among people. Also, you are trying to drag the Orthodox Church into this and put us in a dark light."
He insisted the Orthodox Church remains neutral and doesn't take sides in the conflict.
In early July, Ukrainian troops recaptured the city of Slavyansk from the pro-Russian rebels. Dudnik's church was returned to him. The city is slowly rebuilding.