Russia is deploying repressive and vicious tactics to silence its citizens who protest the government’s war in Ukraine.
Thousands of anti-war activists have been rounded up by the Kremlin. Among them, scores of Christians, including Yuri Sipko, one of Russia’s most respected and well-known evangelical leaders who was forced to flee his country recently.
Now Sipko is a man on the run.
“I’m a wanted person. Security service agents are looking for me everywhere in the country. The moment I step foot back in Russia I will be arrested,” Yuri told CBN News.
On August 8, Russian FSB agents, the equivalent of America’s FBI, raided Sipko’s home in Moscow on charges accusing him of discrediting Russia’s military and their operations in Ukraine.
In video of the raid shown on Russian state TV, at least three agents wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, and carrying heavy assault weapons, enter Sipko’s home, then proceed to film letters, books, diaries, business contacts, and other material, allegedly found in the apartment.
On the same day, three hours south of Moscow, Russian special forces broke into an evangelical church briefly detaining its pastor for questioning.
“According to the Russian government, I’ve been charged with this crime because I said that to fight against Ukrainians is a crime, to kill Ukrainians is a crime, to destroy Ukrainian cities is a crime,” Sipko said.
Thanks to a tip, Sipko avoided the raid and quickly slipped out of the country. He spoke exclusively to CBN News about his ordeal upon arrival at an undisclosed location.
“I knew I would get into trouble because the government was passing all these laws to persecute people who were telling the truth,” Sipko said. “Still, I could not remain silent. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I cannot remain silent about this.”
Sipko, a prominent Russian Baptist pastor, has led some of the country’s most well-known evangelical alliances.
He’s been critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from day one and publicly urged President Vladimir Putin to end the war.
Last year Russia introduced new laws to crack down on anti-war dissent. Amnesty International says more than 21,000 people have been targeted—often subjected to detention, labeled as ‘foreign agents’ or jailed.
“The government’s main goal is to silence people and that only their lies will be spread,” said Sipko.
Even publicly praying or calling for peace also poses risks of prosecution.
“If you are not loyal, then there is no place for you in church,” said Dr. Andrey Desnitsky, a professor at Vilnius University in Lithuania.
Just ask Rev. Ioann Koval.
Last September when Russia’s president ordered a partial mobilization of reservists, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church ordered his clergymen to pray for victory.
Reverend Koval instead replaced the word “victory” with “peace” in his prayer.
“It went against my conscience,” argued Rev. Ioann Koval. “I couldn’t submit to this political pressure from the hierarchy.”
That act got him defrocked from the Russian Orthodox Church. He now leads services at an old Orthodox church in Antalya, Turkey.
At least 30 other Orthodox priests have faced similar pressure.
“I never questioned the choice I made,” said Koval. “I, my whole soul, my whole being opposed this war. It was impossible for me to support the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine with my prayer.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says religious liberty in Russia has reached a new low since the war started.
“The message is very clear: that any religious leader or anyone frankly who is protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine based on religious beliefs, there’s just this incredible crackdown,” Susie Gelman, a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, told CBN News.
The United Nations says their investigation found the religious crackdown also extends to Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine.
“Documenting enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture or other ill-treatment and unlawful deportations perpetrated by Russian armed forces against clergy and members of Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Christian Evangelical communities,” said Nihal Saad, spokesperson for the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC)
And it doesn’t stop there.
Russian missiles regularly target religious institutions and churches, including the recent attack on the historic Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa.
“The Cathedral in Odessa was not the only religious site damaged throughout the war,” said Saad during a recent presentation at the United Nations. “According to a preliminary assessment undertaken by UNESCO, 116 religious sites have been damaged since 24 February 2022.”
Ivana Stradner who covers Russian affairs for the Foundation of Defense of Democracies worries this crackdown on religious freedom will only get worse.
“The more Putin loses in Ukraine, the more he will become desperate at home and the more he will even restrict further those regulations and go after even more people,” warned Stradner.
Back at his undisclosed location, 71-year-old Pastor Sipko tells CBN News he doesn’t fear his future and welcomes the opportunity to confront his accusers.
“I have nothing to be afraid of. My life is almost over, Praise the Lord, I have just a little bit left,” Pastor Sipko told CBN News. “If I would have to go before a judge, be arrested, I would have a chance to say the truth to these people who have power. I want to see them and tell them that God loves them, and he can forgive them and would want them to repent of their sins and receive forgiveness.”