Tortured in Ukraine: Christians Living a Nightmare
EASTERN UKRAINE -- Ukraine's evangelical Christians are bearing the brunt of the country's conflict, often with deadly consequences.
It's a scene that has played in Elena Velichko's head over and over. Pro-Russian rebels took over her hometown in early April. Her husband Vladimir told her to take the kids and leave the city.
"He took us to the train station and we said goodbye. He said, 'I love you.' He kissed me and kissed the children and left," Elena said.
Several days later, her life and that of her eight children, ages 2 to 16, suddenly turned upside down.
It was June 8, Pentecost Sunday. The church was half empty. That's because the city was under tremendous assault by both the pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army.
Once the church service ended everybody made their way to the front of the church to go home.
But then the unimaginable happened.
"The church called and said my husband, along with three other believers, had been taken by men who were waiting outside the church," Elena said.
Alexander Gayvoronski, a church deacon, was there that Sunday morning.
"The men wore masks and had machine guns. They told the four Christian men to get into their cars," Gayvoronsi said.
The rebels took the pastor's sons, Ruvim and Albert Pavenko, Victor Brodarsky, and Elena's husband, Vladimir.
Multiple sources told CBN News what then happened to the four Christian captives.
First rebels took them outside the city and tortured them. The next day the men were put in car and told to drive away.
Then, minutes later they were recaptured and shot multiple times. Elena's husband was burned in the car.
"I don't hate my husband's killers. It is easy to start asking questions. Why did this happen? But if I keep thinking about this it will only wear me out," Elena said.
That same day rebels burned down the largest furniture factory that belonged to Ruvim and Albert Pavenko's father.
It had become clear rebels were targeting the city's evangelical community.
Sergey Demidovich, a top evangelical leader in Slavyansk, said Christians face constant threat.
"I never thought in the 21st century, in [a] free country as Ukraine, it was possible to experience this level of persecution," Demidovich said. "The separatists saw Protestant Christians as enemies. They viewed us as cults."
But the persecution was just getting started.
"All the Protestant churches in the city were either taken over by rebels or forced to close. We were forbidden to meet for services and the leadership forced to leave or be under risk of arrest," Demidovich said.
And the persecution is spreading far beyond just this city. Throughout the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as rebels gain more territory, assaults against evangelicals are growing.
Two pastors told CBN News they were arrested and tortured for their faith.
"If I went to Donetsk today I would be arrested at the first checkpoint and put in jail," Oleg, a pastor from Donetsk, said. "The last time I was in prison they beat me up so badly, but I kept preaching the gospel and telling them to repent."
Many believe the persecution is linked to pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, and the pro-Russian rebels are only happy to do their bidding.
"When I was in prison, a rebel soldier told me they have an order to kill all the Christian pastors who are not part of the Russian Orthodox Church," Anatoly, a pastor from Luhansk, said.
While that has forced some to go underground, others are deciding to stay.
"Many heroes were born out of this conflict -- men and women who are boldly sharing their faith and helping those caught in the war," Oleg said.
Elena Velichko said there's not a day that goes by that she doesn't think of that last goodbye, that final kiss she had with her husband at the train station.
But she is unwavering in her faith, trusting God to take care of her, the children, and Ukraine.
"People often ask me how I am doing. I tell them about a mighty God who can heal our hearts, maybe not as quickly as we would like it, but the process is going on and the prayers of people around the world help," Elena said.
"The biggest thing you can do for me is to pray for me and my family, about the future of my children and my country," she said.