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‘I spoke the truth that Russia started war’ says former Baptist president

25 August 2023

Alamy

President Putin speaks at a gala event, on Wednesday, celebrating the 80th anniversary of victory in the Battle of Kursk during the Second World War

President Putin speaks at a gala event, on Wednesday, celebrating the 80th anniversary of victory in the Battle of Kursk during the Second World...

A FORMER President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Yuri Sipko, has fled to Germany to escape arrest for criticising his country’s actions in Ukraine, amid a continuing crackdown on religious dissent against the war.

“A criminal case has been opened against me — they are looking for me to put me in prison because I’ve spoken the truth that Russia waged war on Ukraine,” Mr Sipko, who headed the Union from 2002 to 2010, told the American ABC6 news channel last week.

“People are dying and everything being destroyed. It’s criminal, and they should not be doing this. . . I think everybody should be speaking out against it.”

Russia’s TASS news agency said that Mr Sipko, who is 71, and was also vice-president of the World Baptist Alliance, had been declared a “wanted person” for spreading “fakes about the army”. It reported that police had searched Baptist Union premises in Moscow and Kaluga in connection with the charges, and detained another Union leader, Albert Ratkin, as a witness.

In addition, the Russian daily newspaper Novaya Gazeta said that Mr Sipko’s son had been arrested during a search of his Moscow apartment three days after Mr Sipko had left the country.

The Gazeta went on to say that Mr Sipko, a former member of President Putin’s Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations, had also condemned the 2008 invasion of Georgia and other Russian actions. He is said to have caused “particular offence” in March last year, by criticising Protestant leaders’ participating in a State Duma meeting to rally the “absolute loyalty of religious leaders” behind the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

At least 20,000 people have been arrested under legal amendments made in March last year, under which heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 15 years can be imposed for circulating “false information” about the war in Ukraine. To date, 50,000 Russians have died because of the war, according to data from the independent Mediazona and Meduza outlets last month.

In March 2022, the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia, Dietrich Brauer, who was born in Siberia, fled with his family to Germany after criticising the war in a sermon. Minority Churches have complained of the suspension of charitable projects because of Western sanctions.

Moscow prosecutors said in a statement that “a criminal case has been opened against the religious figure Yuri Sipko for publicly disseminating deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Federation’s armed forces.” The false information included “actions against the civilian population of Ukraine. This citizen’s unlawful activity was identified and suppressed in the course of joint work by investigators.”

In a message last weekend, the Baptist Union’s current President, Dr Peter Mitskevich, urged his congregations to pray for Mr Sipko and to continue “preaching Christ at this difficult time”, while also working for “peace among nations”.

In an interview with the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia, however, the head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs, Igor Barinov, accused the West of “using religion against the Russian Federation”, by encouraging “Russophobia and protest activity” among faith communities, and “saturating the Russian information space with destructive narratives”.

Mr Barinov told the paper: “The activities of new quasi-religious movements have intensified, promoting an anti-state agenda. The special military operation has created a chance to rid ourselves of all these interethnic, interreligious problems, and to forget about them for years to come.”

In a Facebook message last week, Mr Sipko denied “illegal activity”, and condemned the recent destruction of Mariupol, Bakhmut, and other Ukrainian cities in an “abyss of lies and hatred”. He scorned the portraits of Russian “military heroes” currently displayed on Moscow streets.

In other recent posts, he also quoted warnings from St Matthew’s Gospel that Christians were being “sent out like sheep among wolves” to face arrest and persecution, and the remark by the 19th-century writer Alexander Herzen that “many decent people have fallen into despair” in the depth “of an intolerable situation”.

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