Looking for New Faith, Many In Ukraine Find Baptism

Ukraine has the fastest-growing group of Baptists in the former Soviet Union

THE biggest new church in Kiev is going up at a snail's pace typical in post-Soviet Ukraine - bricks are hard to come by, and money is always a step behind wishes.

But the church and adjoining seminary weren't contracted by Ukraine's predominant Orthodox or second-place Catholics. Instead, Baptists are already using the finished interior to hold services for a briskly growing roster of faithful.

"Last year we baptized 10,000 new members and opened 83 new churches and 70 prayer buildings in Ukraine. Ten years ago we were baptizing 10,000 across the whole Soviet Union," says Hrihory Komendant, president of the All-Ukrainian Association of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.

Ukraine, he says, has the biggest and fastest-growing community of Baptists in the former Soviet Union, with about 7,500 churches and 500,000 members.

Increased religious tolerance in the final days of the Soviet Union cleared the way for denominations of all stripes to attract members over the past decade in Ukraine.

But economic misery and a public conflict within the Orthodox church have made the Baptist church, which is particularly active here, an especially appealing alternative.

Seven out of 10 new Baptists have switched from other religions, attracted by its professional publicity campaigns, humanitarian aid, and hands-on approach to faith.

Vika Sai, a mother of two who attends the new church, said she converted to Baptism two years ago after a series of disasters in her life - a husband who beat her, illnesses in her family, and poverty - brought her to her knees.

Her mother, also a recent convert, prayed with her, and with God's help her husband's injured eye and daughter's injured arm were healed, Ms. Sai said after a Tuesday night service, her eyes shining with tears of gratitude.

"I used to be Orthodox, but it's not enough to wear a cross. You really have to believe and understand. I used to pray before icons, but God doesn't need that. He needs our open hearts," she said, flipping through a well-thumbed Bible to find comfort and words to describe her faith.

The new Baptist church, sporting a brightly lit interior unadorned except for a modest stained-glass window and artificial flowers, seems out of place in the capital city renowned for its golden domes and ancient cathedrals.

There are no frescoes of patron saints here, no incense, gilded icons or other traditional church trappings associated with the 1,000-year-old Slav Orthodox tradition.

The practices of proselytizing and tearful public repentance are also jarring in a country accustomed to somber, formal services heavy on ancient Slav traditions.

But travel and television have helped dispel suspicion about foreign customs, Mr. Komendant says. Mass services by visiting evangelists such as Billy Graham have also greatly raised the profile and reputation of Baptists across the Soviet Union.

Donations from abroad, particularly the United States, make up more than half of the Baptist church's income in Ukraine. "One of our problems is quantity over quality. Unfortunately, we do have a lot of members who join mostly for the material benefits, the humanitarian aid," Komendant admits.

Norman Powman, an American missionary teaching choir directors in Kiev and elsewhere, said he found that Ukrainians had "panic in their hearts" over disastrous economic conditions and were ripe to find a religious solution to their problems.

"Slavs ... lived in spiritual poverty for 70 years of communism. When they hear God loves them, they're taking advantage of it like you wouldn't believe," he said.

Baptists and other "imported" religions have periodically come under fire from leaders of the 35 million-strong Orthodox church, who accuse them of luring away faithful and dividing the nation.

But the Orthodox church is currently involved in a bitter internal dispute - one branch is subordinate to a Kiev patriarch and the other to Moscow's - and has little time to spare for other faiths.

The two Orthodox branches and 5 million Uniate Catholics are also slugging it out - sometimes literally - over property rights to churches that were boarded up or turned into museums for atheism in Soviet times. Uniate Catholics acknowledge the pope but have retained the eastern Orthodox liturgy.

Baptists have been able to sidestep that conflict by building most of their own churches.

In fact, Baptist leaders say the church is as strong now as it has ever been, since the first recorded Baptist baptism in Odessa in 1861.

"I would hesitate to say there is a boom of Baptists. But there is definitely a steady growth," says Mykola Novichenko, who heads the religion department of the Ministry of Nationalities, Migration, and Faiths. "The Orthodox community is so turbulent and crisis-ridden right now that the Baptists provide a big contrast with their stability. Considering the hard times we're having, that's what attracts people."

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