Almost exactly a month ago, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine, beginning the first war in Europe since the 1990s. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have flooded into neighboring countries like Poland and Germany, while those Ukrainians who remain to defend their homeland face danger and death every day.
There are countless ramifications of this war in Ukraine, but a major issue that needs to be addressed is what is at stake for people of faith in Ukraine. To discuss the religious liberty implications of this war, and share how God has been at work within the conflict, we welcome Arielle Del Turco to this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters. Del Turco serves as Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.
“In Ukraine, we see really a lot of religious freedom,” says Del Turco. “It’s actually recognized as one of the former Soviet states that has the best record on religious freedom. In contrast, Russia is actually listed by the U.S. government as a country of particular concern on religious freedom.”
When Russia annexed the Ukrainian land of Crimea in 2014, “religious minorities—including evangelicals—were harassed; they were arrested; certain evangelical literature was banned.” Del Turco warns that the same thing is likely to happen should Russia take more Ukrainian territory.
But there is hope. God is at work in the midst of this war, continues Del Turco. Organizations like Smaritan’s Purse, “they are running toward the situation, even into Ukraine, and setting up field hospitals and assisting people there.” Furthermore, Poland has welcomed three million refugees, and Del Turco notes that “Ukrainian believers will have an opportunity to share [the Gospel] as they spend some time—hopefully temporarily and they can go back to their homes—throughout Western Europe, which is a much more secular environment. That’ll be a really interesting opportunity to share the Gospel.”
“And even within Ukraine itself, we’ve seen the response from the Ukrainian people being very inspiring, rallying together to pool resources and care for each other, to lean into their communities and rallying around their churches to help each other through this time. […] Churches have been on the front lines of responding to the crisis.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Arielle Del Turco talk more about the war in Ukraine, how Christians have been responding, and how we can all continue to respond.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us week for Family Policy Matters. As news from the war in Ukraine continues to travel around the world, opinions about what can and ought to be done are wide-ranging.
Arielle Del Turco joins us today to consider how Americans can pray and help, and the implications for international religious freedom. Del Turco is Assistant Director for the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.
Arielle Del Turco, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Thank you for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: If you would start, give us a historical background on how and why this even came to be.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: I think this is sort of the million dollar question. Why did Putin do this? Taking a stab at some possible answers…We know Putin has an expansionist vision for his country—that he wants to expand not only his territory, but his country’s power. But the excuse that Putin’s using a lot is he’s blaming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for expanding in Europe, and he’s blaming Ukraine—because Ukraine wants to join NATO—for being a security threat. I think that’s a little ridiculous because NATO is a defensive alliance; it is not hostile. And Ukraine is really posing no threat at all to Russia. Ukraine is a much smaller, poorer country.
So, to see this aggression unleashed on Ukraine I think really surprised the world. Even though Putin hinted that this might be a possibility and was building up troops for weeks, it’s still taking the world by surprise. But the one thing we can’t miss here, and you already alluded to this in your intro, is that real, innocent people are hurting. Russia is bombing residential areas; they’re not always honoring agreements for humanitarian corridors; around a hundred children have died. Ukraine is not a threat to Russia and nothing can justify not only Putin’s invasion, but the way that his military is conducting it. It’s just so brutal.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk about the religious landscape in the Ukraine and in Russia, if you would.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Russia is predominantly—the majority by population is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox church. In Ukraine, it’s similar that most people are Orthodox Christians in Ukraine. However, there was a split off. Many of the Orthodox priests wanted to leave the Russian church and fall under Ukrainian leadership, and that kind of reflects some of the political difficulty. It also points to some of the corruption that is occurring in Russia, where the church has gotten very cozy with the Russian government and the Russian government has really used the church as a way to solidify its Russian identity. Obviously, churches were abused and harassed under the Soviet Union, under communism, for decades. But now that Russia’s emerged, they’re almost using religion and abusing it in a different way, which is to force its beliefs.
So, there are certainly religions undertones here. I would not say it’s the main reason that this is unfolding, but Ukraine…in addition to Orthodox Christians, they also have an evangelical minority and small Jewish and Muslim minorities. In Ukraine, we see really a lot of religious freedom. It’s actually recognized as one of the former Soviet states that has the best record on religious freedom. In contrast, Russia is actually listed by the U.S. government as a country of particular concern on religious freedom. So that means it’s one of the few worst countries in the world for religious freedom.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: It certainly has some potential effects on religious liberty, not just in that part of the world, but all over, right? Internationally?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, religious freedom is certainly at stake, especially for the people of Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and they have control through proxies over the Donbas region. So these small areas of Ukraine already had some Russian influence, and what we saw in those regions was that religious minorities—including evangelicals—were harassed; they were arrested; certain evangelical literature was banned. So, in these areas of Ukraine where Russia is exerting control, we’re seeing a lot of abuses there. So for the people of Ukraine, if Russia takes more territory in Ukraine, they can expect that same type of treatment.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You did some writing on masculinity and what this war says about masculinity, and you wrote an article entitled “Real Men Don’t Bomb Women and Children.” Why did you feel the need to write about that in the midst of all of this?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, this is an interesting situation, because Putin has actually for decades portrayed himself as a strong, typically masculine figure. He posed for photo shoots riding shirtless on horseback and hunting and fishing and doing these manly outdoorsy things. But when it comes down to it, the way he’s acting is certainly not what we would expect out of biblical masculinity. He is bombing residential areas; he’s harming children, and he knows this. Over 3 million Ukrainian refugees have had to flee—and most of those refugees are women and children—from Putin’s attack.
In contrast, we can look at leaders like the Ukrainian President Zelensky. Instead of attacking, he has really sacrificed himself. He’s determined to stay in the capital until the end, even though he knows that Putin is specifically targeting his life. But he’s staying for the good of his people and for his country. And even broadly in Ukrainian society, we’ve seen a requirement where men in Ukraine are expected to stay and fight for their country, while women and children are allowed to leave. This really recognizes some of the differences that the Bible notes about men and women—that it’s right for men to sacrifice themselves for the safety and preservation of their families and for women and children by allowing them to leave. So, I think there’s a lot of good examples here in this situation about what masculinity should and should not look like.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So obviously we should be praying for peace, but what are some other priorities?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, I always encourage people—and this goes for all situations around the world that seem a little too large, and we can wonder what we should be praying in these situations—is just to put yourself in that situation. If you were living your life in Ukraine right now, what would you need prayer for? And I think that would be certainly physical safety; it would be that God would comfort them in the midst of this, it’s certainly a very terrifying time; and also that God would be guiding these individuals. Ukraine has so many believers who have to make decisions on what they’re going to do, and if their family’s going to separate, if their family’s going to leave, if the mom is going to take up a gun and fight along with her husband. These are very real and scary decisions that people have to make under intense time pressure.
So we can be praying for that. We can also be praying for world leaders. While the invasion was Putin’s fault alone, world leaders all have the responsibility of how they’re going to respond, and they need to be doing this quickly. We’re seeing a lot of consequences for hesitation or for their actions already, so we need to be praying for that. And we can also even pray—and this is a prayer that might not feel as good for some people—but for a change of heart for Putin, and that he would stop this invasion and just turn around and have a total change of heart and repent.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Humanitarian aid is something we’ve been hearing a lot about. Are there certain organizations that you could recommend if people would like to assist in that way?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, one organization I think has been really stellar is Samaritan’s Purse. They are running toward the situation, even into Ukraine, and setting up field hospitals and assisting people there, in addition to helping people at the border. So, that is a great place to start, and I know there are other Christian organizations like Operation Blessing going to the Polish border to help out. But I think Samaritan’s Purse is a great place to start.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk about some of Ukraine’s neighbors. Some have stepped up in dramatic ways to serve the families and individuals who have become refugees due to this war. Talk a little bit about that.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, I think especially in Poland, we’ve seen a really good example of a country being extremely generous taking in, as I said, around 3 million refugees. That’s about the size of their capital, Warsaw. That’s a huge amount of people, and most of them are women and children who are defenseless and need a lot of help. So, that has been really inspiring to just see the Polish people rally around Ukrainians, their neighbors. We’ve also seen even German citizens opening their homes up to Ukrainian refugees. So just across Europe, there are really stellar examples of what it looks like to help your neighbor.
And even within Ukraine itself, we’ve seen the response from the Ukrainian people being very inspiring, rallying together to pool resources and care for each other, to lean into their communities and rallying around their churches to help each other through this time.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, we’ve seen in the Bible instances where the Church came under pressure and had to scatter, and the Word of God was actually taken to the far reaches. Do you see any potential for the Christians in Ukraine to influence the many countries around them that are taking them in?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Oh, absolutely! And even in Ukraine, churches have been on the front lines of responding to the crisis. And I think at times of crisis, people are looking for answers. Not only “Why is this happening?” but “What is the meaning of life?” So I think in Ukraine, we’re seeing people turn towards churches and turn towards God. We’ve heard reports of that. But also, yeah, these Ukrainian believers will have an opportunity to share as they spend some time—hopefully temporarily and they can go back to their homes— but they spend time throughout Western Europe, which is a much more secular environment. That’ll be a really interesting opportunity to share the Gospel.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Yeah. Well, the world is certainly watching. So, we’re just about out of time this week. Before we go, Arielle Del Turco, talk about where our listeners can go to follow your response there at FRC on the war in Ukraine.
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah. So you can follow some of our international religious freedom efforts frc.org/IRF.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And you actually are the Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at FRC. Is that a new organization within FRC?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: It is not, but our efforts on international religious freedom are fairly new. But we’re expanding every day and excited to engage on this issue.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, you’ve been concentrating more on religious liberty issues in our country, but now you’re looking around the world, huh?
ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Absolutely.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Arielle Del Turco with the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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