Christian radio reacts to restrictions imposed by Ukraine on …… | News and reports
A new language law in Ukraine has complicated ministry to Russian-speaking citizens. Comparing restrictions to the Soviet era, a Christian broadcaster is moving to Budapest, Hungary.
“I don’t want our staff arrested for reading the Bible in Russian,” said Dan Johnson, president of Christian Radio for Russia, which operates New Life Radio (NLR) from Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. . “We expected bombs to destroy our radio operations, but it turned out to be that law.”
Last month, Russian missiles landed a mile from their studio.
But earlier in July, President Volodymyr Zelensky enacted a near-complete ban on Russian music on radio and television. Passed by parliament by a two-thirds majority, it exempts pre-independence classical artists like Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as well as modern composers who condemned the war.
About 65% of NLR’s airtime is devoted to music. Although local Christian hymns inspired many during the war, Johnson said most contemporary worship songs are in Russian, even those originating in Ukraine.
A 2021 national survey identified 22% of Ukraine’s population as native Russian speakers, with 36% speaking the language primarily at home. Concentrated in eastern Donbass and southern areas where Russian troops have prioritized the attack, there are fears that Moscow is preparing to annex some occupied areas.
Johnson has already fled the restrictions. He moved to Russia in 1991 and in 1996 began radio ministry in Magadan, a star city in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s film. The Gulag Archipelago. Expelled in 2006, he continued his satellite radio work in Moscow, broadcasting throughout the former Soviet Union. But as the campaign against the free press and evangelical ministry tightened, in 2019 he moved on again.
Odessa promised an atmosphere of freedom – until now.
“There is no government in the world that can stop the gospel,” Johnson said. “We will pivot and move forward as always.”
NLR rents its studios and broadcasts via satellite and online, simplifying operations. Budapest was chosen because of its large Russian Christian population, said Johnson, who welcomed the ministry.
In the meantime, NLR continues to produce content in Russian, encrypting the signal for broadcast from outside the country. That should satisfy the law, he said, while raising funds to build a Ukrainian-only network in Odessa. In time, as a future Ukrainian broadcaster, he hopes to obtain an FM license, alongside satellite and internet radio.
“I hope the authorities will leave us alone,” he said.
Sergey Rakhuba of Mission Eurasia called the NLR collateral damage.
“I believe in freedom of expression,” he said, “but it’s a state of war.”
A native Russian speaker himself, an aspect of Rakhuba’s ministry has come under increased scrutiny due to the new law’s additional ban on books from Russia, Belarus and the occupied territories of Ukraine. It also limits imports of Russian-language literature from other countries.
Officials took note of Bibles and translations of children’s devotions keys for children in a shipment from Poland to be delivered in the Donbass. Clearly identified as Christian material, they let it through with the signature of the local pastor.
Mission Eurasia is always welcome to print Russian materials, Rakhuba said, but there is very little demand. Churches are voluntarily changing their sermons to Ukrainian, he said, while the Pentecostal Union has officially dropped the Russian language in all of its services.
“The government is doing everything possible to limit Russian propaganda,” Rakhuba said, “but the people also want to show their loyalty.”
Many are impatient, even though they struggle to speak the language, said Victor Akhterov, senior Eurasia coordinator for FEBC (Far East Broadcasting Company). Prior to the invasion, the global Christian radio network – which broadcasts from 149 stations in 50 countries – operated seven FM stations in Ukraine, all in predominantly Russian-speaking regions – and added Zaporizhzhia in April and Kyiv earlier this month. this.
Two closed because of the war.
Participants invited to stations will often greet in Ukrainian before asking if they can continue in Russian. But the primary broadcast language has changed over time, reflecting national policy.
“We anticipated the government’s response [to the 2014 separatist movement in Donbas]said Akhterov, “and tried to adapt by following trends.”
Founded in 1945 with a focus on China, FEBC began broadcasting in Ukraine in 1949 and on local networks in 1993. Twenty years later, it opened its first station in the city of Sloviansk, Donbass, which was captured by Russian-backed rebel forces in 2014.
Four of his volunteers were executed.
At that time, FEBC’s local broadcast had a Russian-language orientation with 20% Ukrainian content, designed to increase over time. Before the Russian invasion, the content was about 75% Ukrainian. Callers, Akhterov said, can speak any language they want.
The same is true for citizens, even if the public square has moved.
In 2012, Ukraine gave minority languages official regional status for use in courts, schools and other government institutions in areas where use has reached a 10% threshold.
But in 2015, Russian was removed from all railways and airports, and in 2016 the first quotas were established for Ukrainian songs on the radio. It was at this time that the FEBC made the “strategic decision” to switch mainly to Ukrainian.
In 2019, the 2012 law was completely superseded to now require the use of Ukrainian in almost all aspects of public life, while the media must include Ukrainian versions alongside minority languages. Exceptions were allowed for several ethnic communities, English and other European languages.
Russian was excluded.
But there’s no “ugly push” away from the tongue, Akhterov said. When the government consolidated national television channels last March, it continued to broadcast news in Russian. People remain free to speak the language, he said, and thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots are fighting to resist the invasion.
And many change their mother tongue.
Originally from the Luhansk region in the Donbass, Rakhuba’s nephew campaigned to preserve the Russian language against changes in Ukrainian politics. Last week, the head of the Eurasia Mission was surprised to receive his relative’s letter written in “pure Ukrainian”.
“I don’t blame my family for changing,” Rakhuba said. “Russian is now experienced as the language of the invader.”
Akhterov said that for many it is now “painful” to speak their native language.
“All my life I have spoken and read Russian; I have written articles and books in Russian; I preached in Russian,” said Sergey Nakul, FEBC’s main broadcaster in Kyiv. “Today, I can’t. I completely switched to Ukrainian.
We therefore do not regret the changes to the antenna, especially since Russian-speaking citizens are still affected. The affiliated ministry continues in Russia online and on social media, reaching three million Ukrainians each month.
The FEBC has long had a policy of refraining from politics, Akhterov said. But as they interact with grieving listeners, the broadcast interactions clearly show them on the side of the Ukrainian people.
In Russia it is more difficult. FM station licenses in Moscow and St. Petersburg were not renewed in 2016, accelerating the transition to the Internet Ministry. And today workers affiliated with the FEBC do not speak publicly about their wartime challenges. Their goal is to preserve a multi-million audience and their evangelistic opportunities.
“We all understand that Russia lives under a dark cloud of lies,” Akhterov said. “But we don’t do anti-propaganda; we proclaim the light of Christ.
For Johnson, multilingual NLR staff are in a “dilemma”.
“What would you think of a government that discriminates against your language? he said. “People from both countries are watching us to see where our allegiances lie.”
Neutral on the air, they unite privately against Putin and the evil perpetrated by war. Critics were received early on as they emphasized their peacemaking allegiance to the kingdom of God, he said, but the stance helped foster a sense of unity among listeners. During the hour-long daily phone show, Ukrainian and Russian speakers asked for hymns in their respective languages and greeted each other warmly as a family.
“We strive to promote that spirit the other 23 hours of the day,” Johnson said.
But the religious battle continues between the two nations.
The Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine has asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to remove Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill from office. The Ukrainian Baptist Union has called on its Russian colleagues to be a “prophetic voice” on their behalf as they mourn the loss of 400 war-torn churches.
But the Russians are not inactive either. Last month, the nation’s Security Council passed resolutions against the “negative influence” of foreign religious associations. And on August 15, several members of the New Generation Churches movement were arrested; a year earlier, the sect was declared “undesirable”.
Johnson worries that Ukraine’s wartime policies are heading in the same direction in terms of language, not faith. Akhterov disagrees. And while NLR focuses on strengthening the church in its Slavic niche, the larger FEBC sees itself as a missionary enterprise to unbelievers.
But as each pursues their ministry in times of war and suffering, both efforts are centered in the Bible.
“We let the scriptures explain themselves and leave a mark on the listener,” Johnson said. “Paul can explain how to live as a Christian better than any radio commentator.”