Russian pastor Yuri Sipko wanted by Russia for opposing Ukraine war

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As Putin and Kim Jong Un meet, Russian pastor Yuri Sipko is wanted by Russia for opposing the war in Ukraine

September 15, 2023 -

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before their talk at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before their talk at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before their talk at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

When Kim Jong Un makes international headlines, it’s rarely a good thing. That appears to be the case once again after the North Korean despot’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And while no official agreements were made when the pair conversed at Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome—a key Russian spaceport—all indications point to an already precarious relationship becoming even more dangerous.

After all, it was Kim Jong Un’s first trip beyond his borders since 2019, and it’s unlikely he would have made the trip without assurances that it would be worth the journey.

As Mary Trimble and Grayson Logue write, “The pair smiled for cameras, pledged eternal friendship, and likely agreed to exchange munitions (from North Korea) for access to satellite and missile technology (from Russia), in violation of all manner of international sanctions.”

Such an exchange is not unprecedented, but it would mark a reversal of sorts as Russia has rarely been on the receiving end of weapons in its interactions with North Korea. When you look past their history, however, the match makes sense.

Despite the rampant poverty and starvation among its people, the US State Department estimates that North Korea spends a higher percentage of its GDP on its military—roughly 26 percent—than any of the other 170 nations it reviewed. As such, North Korea has plenty of weapons and munitions to spare.

And while the move may be a sign of desperation on Putin’s part, it also seems to indicate that he has little expectation of the war in Ukraine coming to an end anytime soon. Unfortunately, the talks with North Korea are not the only such sign in the news today.

Who is Yuri Sipko?

Yuri Sipko has been a prominent and controversial figure in Russia for many years. However, it would appear that Putin has finally decided that the seventy-one-year-old former president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists crossed a line recently in his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

After being charged with distributing “knowingly false information” against the Russian military, authorities raided his home, arrested his son—who has since been released—and put Sipko on the wanted list. Sipko, however, had already fled the country and is currently residing in Germany.

He said of the allegations, “This is a lawless law imposed by a lawless regime, against lawful people. The crime is the destruction of Ukraine. Silence, also, is a crime.”

Yet silence is the approach that many of his fellow evangelicals in Russia have chosen to take when it comes to the war. And their reasons are understandable.

As Jayson Casper describes, “Evangelical fear in Russia was legitimate. Accompanying the charges against Sipko was an official media campaign against the broader Protestant community, alleging their status as foreign agents. According to the SOVA Center, Sipko’s sermons were called ‘outright enemy propaganda’ that was developed by ‘American curators.'”

However, for many that hesitancy to view Sipko as a figure worth following is also born from a genuine belief that it is unbiblical to go against the Russian government.

“Dancing on the edge of being loyal”

Many Evangelical Christians in Russia do not want to follow the Russian Orthodox Church’s overt approval of the war in Ukraine. However, the majority also seem unwilling to condemn it.

Peter Mitskevich is one such individual and speaks for many Evangelicals in the country.

Mitskevich is the president of the Russian Baptist Union, which means he leads roughly 1,650 churches and church plants throughout the region. In the wake of the government’s denouncement of Sipko, Mitskevich noted that information was “scant” and asked that people pray for the fleeing pastor while also encouraging “peace among the nations” and pointing to Peter’s admonition to “honor the emperor” in 1 Peter 2:17.

Others are even more direct in their beliefs.

Bill Yoder, for example, is a retired church journalist in Russia and believes that Sipko is “better off in the West.” He went on to say, “It is not our task to wish victory for the other side, but Yuri went beyond this, pushing the Ukrainian cause. And theologically, he is dancing on the edge of being loyal to the authorities. . . . I wish Yuri and his family well. I don’t see him as a non-brother, but he has forsaken his church.”

While the belief that Sipko has “forsaken his church” may be a minority opinion among Russian Evangelicals, Yoder likely speaks for more Russian Evangelicals than many in the West might believe.

And the desire to keep it that way seems to be why Sipko is in Germany rather than a Russian jail. After all, if the government had truly been intent on arresting him, then they likely would have found a way to do so. However, such an approach would have run the risk of turning him into a martyr, and a martyr’s message tends to be harder to control.

Conversely, by allowing him to flee to Europe, they are able to portray Sipko and his pro-Ukrainian message as further evidence of a malign Western influence that runs counter to what it means to be a good citizen.

But while it may be tempting for us to look on in judgment at those who would believe that assessment, their response carries an important warning for us today.

Our highest priority

The vast majority of news with which we’re inundated on a daily basis is political in nature, and it’s only going to get worse as next year’s election draws closer. As such, it can be easy to slowly but steadily become more invested in the government than the gospel.

For some, that looks like agreeing with everything your political party preaches while coming to see the other side as the enemy. For others, it’s looking at issues through the lens of national impact rather than kingdom impact.

And even the opposite response of disengaging with politics completely is often born of an apathy that is more centered on the government than the gospel.

Ultimately, God does call us to “honor the emperor” and “be subject to the governing authorities” (1 Peter 2:17; Romans 13:1), but neither is ever meant to take his place as our highest priority and the primary lens through which we see the world around us.

So as politics, elections, and the host of issues that accompany them continue to dominate the news over the coming months, be intentional about going to God and his word first for understanding his will.

Let’s start today.

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