DONETSK/KHARKIV, Ukraine Tensions and prayer are now rising across eastern Ukraine as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate.
Violent demonstrations erupted during the April 4-6 weekend, with pro-Russian demonstrators calling for independence from Ukraine or annexation by Russia.
Thousands demonstrated in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, battling anti-riot police and seizing government buildings. In Donetsk, the Ukrainian flag was hurled to the ground from the city's administrative center and replaced by a Russian flag.At noon on Sunday, April 6, Tom Long* received a message from a local news agency reporting that the city of Donetsk would be renamed the People's Republic of Donetsk.
"This is exactly what they did in Crimea," Long said. "One day they overtook the parliament building, and then they called for a referendum." The day after the vote for independence, Crimea was annexed by Russia.
Within an hour after Long received the message, a referendum in Donetsk was slated for May 11.
Pro-Russia activists, in storming the local government headquarters in Donetsk on Saturday, April 5, built a barricade around it. More than a hundred people were holed up inside, declaring a change of government. Ukrainian police were on guard outside but had said they will not use violence against the activists.
Similar scenarios were being played out in the cities of Luhansk and Kharkiv. In Luhansk, demonstrators seized a stockpile of government weapons.
IMB worker Joy Burnett*, who lives just blocks from the city center of Kharkiv, said the Ukrainian flag is still waving and won't be removed without a fight.
"They're not going to give it up the way they did Crimea," Burnett said.
Even among Ukrainian Christians, who are historically pacifists, the threat of foreign domination is having an effect. Burnett said a friend recently told her, "I am ready to fight for my country."
Although the future of eastern Ukraine is uncertain, Burnett and Long said God is at work in the midst of the unfolding crisis.
As many as 200 believers have been gathering every morning in Kharkiv's Freedom Square, just feet away from a towering statue of Lenin, to pray for their country, Burnett reported. The nondenominational group includes Baptists, Pentecostals and Orthodox, the state church that is typically unfriendly toward evangelicals.
"It's really amazing," Burnett said. "Young and old, fathers bringing their children, rain or snow everybody is on their knees."
A volunteer group from America has scheduled a trip to Ukraine in May to work with Burnett. They are veteran volunteers who have been to Ukraine 11 times. Despite the current situation, they have no plans to change their agenda, believing that God is going to do things in Ukraine that He has never done before.
Both Burnett and Long are seeing evidence to support that belief.
"People are more open than they've been in years and years and years," Burnett said.
Burnett and Long said it has been encouraging to see the way Ukrainian churches have responded to the crisis. They are praying and fasting, opening their doors at all hours and welcoming people to come and pray.
And the need is huge. In the city center of Donetsk alone, for example, there is no evangelical church among a population of 100,000, Long said.
For this reason, the two IMB workers have no plans to leave the country in spite of the possible dangers of staying.
"Why would I leave when God is at work?" Burnett asked. "This is exactly where I should be."
Long agreed. "My heart cry has been for God to establish His church in the center of this city where I live with 100,000 others," he said. "I shouldn't fear for myself or believers, but need to fear for those who have not yet heard or who have heard and not made a decision. That's why we stay here."
The IMB workers asked for prayer for peace and wisdom in Ukraine in the current crisis and for churches to continue boldly sharing Christ; for many to come to repentance; and for police who are standing in the middle, between their government and their people.