On April 23, 2011, The New York Times carried a story about the Embassy of God, a Pentecostal megachurch in, of all places, Kiev. I had known about this church before, but the Times story, in combination with other items about Ukraine that had come to my intention, made me reflect about it once more. There is some rather limited information on the Internet. But my main source for recent religious curiosities in Ukraine are Artyom and Lydia Tonoyan, two graduate students at Baylor University, where I have recently been teaching several times a year. Lydia is Ukrainian, Artyom is Armenian but has lived in Ukraine. Both are doing research on religious and political developments in that country.
The Embassy of God was founded a few years ago by Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian preacher. He had studied in Minsk (now Belarus) during Soviet times (studies that had nothing to do with religion), had started a Pentecostal group with other African students, then moved to Kiev. It was there that his extraordinary charismatic gifts took off, giving him a platform way beyond the community of African expatriates. The Embassy of God, the Pentecostal congregation he founded in Kiev, experienced phenomenal growth. It now claims about 25,000 members in its Kiev location, with about the same number in affiliated churches throughout the country and abroad. This membership consists overwhelmingly of white Ukrainians. The Embassy of God is probably the largest church in the country. For a while the mayor of Kiev was a member and Adelaja, though he never became a Ukrainian citizen, has cultivated contacts in political elite circles.
Not surprisingly, Adelaja’s success has met with sharp opposition by the dominant churches in Ukraine, the Orthodox and the so-called Greek Catholic or Uniat, as well as by a growing number other Protestant groups. The Embassy of God has been called a “cult” (a pejorative term with little objective content) and Adelaja has been criticized for preaching the “prosperity gospel” (which can mean anything from advocating the Protestant ethic to extracting money from poor people to support luxurious lifestyles by preachers). Recently Adelaja and some other leading members of his church have been charged with running a Ponzi scheme. Adelaja has denied the charges and claimed that he is the victim of a plot to discredit his church and the overall charismatic/Pentecostal movement.
The global expansion of Pentecostalism is an established and extremely important fact. This particular case is noteworthy only because Ukraine seems an unlikely territory for this expansion. And, if one is intrigued by religious curiosities, a large number of white Ukrainians following an African preacher into the enchanted garden of charismatic Protestantism is rather curious indeed. But another Protestant development in Ukraine is even more curious, indeed has the traits of a man-bites-dog story.
This is the growth of the movement called Messianic Judaism. There is even less reliable information on the Internet, but Lydia Tonoyan has embarked on an intensive study of the movement. It was apparently introduced into Ukraine by American missionaries in the 1990s, and has grown impressively. Huge services are held in Kiev and in other cities, again with strong charismatic/Pentecostal characteristics. But it also incorporates distinctly Jewish forms of worship, with Jesus always referred to as Yeshua. At first glance (which is all I have had so far), the movement strikes one as a sort of Pentecostalization of Hasidism. Its festivals of Jewish music with Evangelical preaching evidently attracts, not only its devotees, but large crowds of sympathetic or at least intrigued onlookers. Unlike the Embassy of God, the Messianic Jews were brought to Ukraine by Americans rather than Africans; like the Embassy, it has been producing indigenous leadership.
The Messianic Jews have a resemblance to a much better-known movement, also of American provenance: Jews for Jesus. There is a similar project of emphasizing the Jewish roots of Christianity and the status of Jesus/Yeshua as the Messiah of the Jewish people, and a synthesis of worship forms from both traditions. But there is one very interesting difference: Jews for Jesus are mainly people who were converted to Evangelical Christianity (though, as far as I know, of a less charismatic type), but who want to continue identifying themselves as Jews. However, according to Lydia, the majority of Messianic Jews are Gentile Ukrainians who want to be Jews.
Given the history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, including the shameful role of many Ukrainians as collaborators of the Nazis during the Holocaust, this development is truly astounding. I have never been to Ukraine, but in Poland a couple of years ago I encountered a significant phenomenon best called “Jewish chic”. Being Jewish or, if not, doing Jewish things has lately become cool, especially among young people with no personal Jewish background. In Warsaw and other Polish cities one can observe young Gentile Poles playing kletzmer music, coming out with tidbits of Yiddish, eating gefilte fish in restaurants exhibiting the Star of David—and giving a warm welcome to Jewish tourists from America or (even better) from Israel. The history of anti-Semitism in Poland, while not quite as grisly as in Ukraine, also has a long trail of atrocities. But in both countries there is now a significant renascence of Jewish culture, in the remnants of the Jewish communities there, but also among many Gentiles. One can look on the new philo-Semitism in two different ways. On the one hand, there is here a genuine and indeed moving effort, especially by young people, to rediscover and recognize the important Jewish component of Polish and Ukrainian history. On the other hand, there is a certain unsavory aspect to celebrating Jewishness in countries where, not long ago, the great majority of Jews were murdered—often with the connivance if not collaboration by their Gentile neighbors. One is reminded of an old joke (this one originally from Austria): What is a philo-Semite? A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who likes Jews. I think one should not generalize from either interpretation.
The overall religious situation in Ukraine is decidedly pluralistic—unusual for eastern Europe. The majority is Orthodox, but split into three mutually hostile factions: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the UIkrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church. Please do not count on me to explain all these differences, except that the split is politically significant in terms of pro-Russian versus pro-Western groups. There are Uniats (who practice eastern rites but recognize the primacy of Rome) and also standard Roman Catholics, especially in the western part of Ukraine (which until 1918 was ruled by Austria; the eastern part was under Russian rule—the old frontier is still relevant). The number of Protestants is hard to estimate, as many may still belong formally to the other Christian bodies, but Protestantism has been growing, especially in the aforementioned Pentecostal version. According to one estimate, Protestants of all kinds make up about 10% of religious adherents. There is (still or again) a sizable number of Jews—non-“Messianic” ones, that is. Not surprisingly, Jewish organizations have been especially vigorous in their opposition to the Messianic movement. There is also a sizable population of Muslims in the Crimea region. 62% of the population say that they are “not religious”, but this could mean any number of things. In any case, the religious situation in Ukraine is very different from that in Russia: There is no parallel to the united and dominant Russian Orthodox Church, or to the support given to the latter by the Russian government. The Ukrainian government is religiously neutral, allowing an efflorescence of religious pluralism.
I have argued for years that modernity, while it does not necessarily lead to secularization, does to pluralism—unless the state intervenes coercively to arrest this process. The Russian state tries to so intervene, the Ukrainian state does not. Throughout the ex-Communist world there has been a powerful need for values and identity in the wake of the cultural disaster of Communism. Religion is most likely to meet this need. A recent book by Christopher Marsh, Religion and the State in Russia and China (2011), tells this story in a masterful way (not so incidentally, the Tonoyans have been students of his). Ukraine provides a particularly instructive case in point.