Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Portraits of four eastern Ukraine Protestants who were killed by armed pro-Russian rebels in early June are decked with flowers for mourning in the foyer of the Christian Church of Transfiguration in Slaviansk, Ukraine, in July 2014. From left, the four men are Deacon Vladimir Velichko, Albert Pavenko, Ruvim Pavenko, and Deacon Victor Brodarsky.

A Ukrainian murder mystery ensnares a church in former rebel stronghold

That pro-Russia separatists kidnapped and murdered four members of a Pentecostal church in Slaviansk seems sure. But very little else about the incident is.

On a warm June morning, a dozen masked, armed men burst into the Church of the Transfiguration in the Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, demanding to know who among its 300 congregants owned the four expensive vehicles parked in front.

Four men stepped forward – the church priest’s two grown sons, Ruvim and Albert Pavenko, and two deacons, Victor Brodarsky and Vladimir Velichko – and were quickly hustled out of the large, Soviet-era edifice, thrust into their cars, and forced to drive away with the rebels. After 35 agonizing days of searching came evidence that all four were dead.

The murder of these men, and the discovery of their bodies at a mass grave near an old war memorial, may prove one of the most cold-blooded acts in a conflict that has so far taken hundreds of lives – showing in one terrifying move how the rebels cemented a mechanism of intimidation in Slaviansk. 

The rebels who occupied Slaviansk for nearly three months fled on July 5, moving the center of gravity of their self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic”  south to the city of Donetsk, and finally enabling inquiry into the mysterious fate of four respected members of the town’s small Protestant community.

The attack came as a shock: Pro-Russia separatists in face masks had showed up twice before at the Pentecostal church's services. But apparently confident that only prayer – no politics – was under way, they told churchgoers they had nothing to fear.

Theories abound about what happened on June 8. Was the motive robbery, to steal cars worth $200,000? Were the men targeted because their Protestant beliefs were at odds with the Orthodox Church, some of whose priests openly backed the rebels? 

Or was it because – as Russian media reported, but Ukrainian officials and Protestants here deny as absurd – they had secretly supported Ukrainian forces against the rebels?

Church members are still grappling with grief. “Everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, and everything that comes from God – it makes [the killers] hate,” says one, who asked not to be named. “These are people with dirty souls who want to make things bad.”

No matter the motivation for murder, the saga opens a window on how rebel actions helped terrorize a Russian-speaking population that at first welcomed the aims of the pro-Russia separatists. Now coming to light are the rebels' fears of pro-Kiev sentiment, of religious belief that was unacceptable to the Orthodox Church, and their desire to establish complete control.

Rebels' rule

The rebels say they never target civilians, and accuse Ukrainian forces of abuses and shelling the population. Yet Igor Druz, chief adviser to rebel military commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, admitted to the BBC that rebels used executions to keep “marauding” rebels in line.

Human Rights Watch says they went further, reporting that insurgents “systematically kidnapped, abducted, beat, and sometimes tortured” those they suspected of supporting Kiev, in a “pattern” of abuse that stretched across rebel-controlled territory. After Slaviansk fell, journalists found an order signed by Strelkov himself for a firing squad execution of a man for petty theft.

Locals here back this up, describing how people were beaten and sometimes tortured in the basement of the former KGB headquarters, a heavyset brick building near the center of town, or at the police station, which was also occupied by rebels. 

Protestants in Slaviansk had felt particularly under threat from the rebels. Despite about half of the town having fled the violence, several thousand Protestants, belonging to 15 or so non-Orthodox denominations, including the Church of the Transfigurationstill remained. And a number of them had been arrested by the separatists, accused of being “Satanists” or of helping the Ukrainian Army.

“Their logic is: ‘We brought the Orthodox Church, ours is right and there are no others. Your church is linked to America, our enemy, so we will destroy you,’” says Peter Dudnik, a priest at the local Christian Center of the Good News Church, who also runs a charity for orphans. The bishop of his church was arrested and held for 24 hours, amid several other arrests of church members, including drivers and even music attendants. 

Mr. Dudnik shows a video of the period when his church complex was occupied by rebels. In one scene, two Orthodox priests pray beside a door, then the camera pans to show two rebel tanks in the back field near a children’s playground, firing their main guns at unseen targets. Other YouTube videos also show Orthodox priests in religious attire encouraging the rebellion.

“I think the real reason they were killed was religious ideology, because the people who took over radically support the Orthodox Church,” says Dudnik.

Church services stopped

The Church of the Transfiguration was devastated by the attack. Services ceased, and armed rebels came seven times to the house of the priest whose two sons had disappeared, looking to arrest him, too.

“I have no anger toward these people,” says Alexander Pavenko, speaking by telephone. He left town rather than be taken away like his sons. “If they wanted to cause me pain, they succeeded. But they did not manage to break my belief [in God]. It is God who will deal with them.”

The story pieced together by church members and police investigators from witnesses to the chain of events tells of a cruel execution around 4 a.m., about 16 hours after the men were taken from their church.

All four men were in one car and moving forward – as if, in fact, they had been released – when gunmen shot two rifle-fired grenades into the car, killing one of the men. The other three appear to have been shot and killed after escaping from the wreckage.

Investigators say the gunmen may have wanted to make the killings look like random war casualties, instead of a murder by rebels.

“They attack such [non-Orthodox] churches and believe they came from the US, are Protestant and not Russian,” says Oleg Kotenko, a Ukrainian Army military liaison in Slaviansk.

“It was a terrible xenophobia, they hated anything Ukrainian or American,” recalls Denis Bigunov, a member of the City Council.

With the ongoing fighting having cut power across Slaviansk – and more importantly, at the morgue – the rebels were forced to bury their victims quickly. The churchmen's bodies were placed along with several dead Russian fighters in a mass grave, beside a monument to Ukraine’s century-old civil war. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that two men wearing camouflage uniforms carried out the burials. Later in the day, the insurgents brought two Orthodox priests to pray over the site.

Mikhael Hizhnyak, the chief police investigator in Slaviansk, says the desire to gain “big money” by stealing the cars may account for the killings. He suggests the men were not targeted for their Protestant religious beliefs: “It is more often in our society, people hide their real reasons behind big ideas.”

Another theory, that the church supported Ukrainian government forces, took hold in the Russian media, which locals say have misreported numerous events in Ukraine in a bid to manipulate them.

In mid-July, for example, state-run Voice of Russia reported that the “mutilated bodies” of two priests had been found in the Slaviansk grave. It purported to quote Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, saying the churchmen “were tortured and killed by the Ukrainian nationalists.” He was misquoted, however, and told the Monitor in Kiev that the “terrorist” killers were in fact pro-Russian separatists, not Ukrainians.

What now for the church?

Weeks after the rebels fled, residents are still taking stock of the damage to their town and their lives, both physically and psychologically. These days, portraits of the dead stand in the ornate lobby of the church, on easels decked with fresh flowers. They were finally buried last week in coffins draped in purple velvet with gilt crosses – ironically, in the same place where, just days earlier, they had been exhumed.

The Protestant churchgoers speak with love in their voices when they describe the men taken from their lives. Brodarsky worked with young people, was “very active,” and “looked so much” toward heaven, recalls one grieving church elder, standing beside the flower-bedecked portraits of men she called “modern-day saints.”

Mr. Velichko served local prisons and collected food donations, as church photographs attest. The grown sons of the priest were known to be friends to all.

“They were such people, it seems we could never find others to replace them. It was a big loss,” says the elder. “We know they are with God. Such people, God needs them, too. They are more alive than us.”

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