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Partners in piety: inside Ukraine’s evangelical business empire

This church will “really change your consciousness and reform your life”. But at what cost? RU

The Resurrection church in Vydubychi, Kyiv. Photo courtesy of the author.Sunday services at Kyiv’s Vozrozhdeniye, or Resurrection, church attract hundreds. Most travel by metro, trudging the last bit through an industrial estate to Vydubychi, a historic area on the edge of the city. The church itself is an immense metal box, painted to look like a blue sky with a few clouds floating in it. Above it, a banner showing a happy (traditional) family: “Dream, act and win. Resurrection”. With the surrounding industrial landscape, the building appears like a ray of light in a kingdom of darkness.

“Precious, anointed ones, come this way”. The security guys organise the crowd with ease, directing them to the few empty seats left. The interior could pass for a Eurovision venue – a floodlit stage with a large screen, spotlights and multi-coloured lighting effects. The priests wear shiny red suits and bowties. The women wear dramatic make-up, and their hair is done to perfection. The services are rousing, often with an acapella prayer and a musical finale that brings the more impressionable members of the congregation to ecstasy.

The congregation, hungry for spiritual spectacle, repeat the words of the chanted prayers and shout “Amen” in American fashion, waving their arms in the air. A few speak in tongues after receiving the Holy Spirit. Many have brought notebooks to note the important bits of the sermons – there are many of these, one after another.

The preachers talk about strength of character and faith, and quote passages from the scriptures, each in their own style, but all loud, full of inspiration and accompanied by guitar riffs. In between times, people are exhorted to sign up for church events and activities: going on a “crusade”; enrolling on bible courses where they can render “powerful praise and worship unto God” and hold “healing” sessions, not to mention “summits” at which Muntyan expounds his teachings about the fourth dimension, which will “really change their consciousness and reform their lives”. All these events cost money.

Although there is a lot of talk of prosperity in the church, most of the followers of the Resurrection church are people on the breadline, pensioners, desperately ill people and small business owners.

God’s partners

The Resurrection church was first set up in Pereshchepyne, a small town in the Dnipropetrovsk region. In 20 years, it has spread throughout and beyond Ukraine. It also has daughter churches in other former Soviet countries, Israel and Germany.

The thousands of followers of the Apostle Vladimir Muntyan aren’t just members of a church, but “partners of God”. They are active partners, making regular payments to its funds: tithing, swelling the collections at Sunday services, contributing to the funding of courses and summits. To receive something from God, you must give something in return – this is Resurrection’s philosophy of success.

“If you want to spread the gospel, you are in constant need of money. The partners are people who love the Gospel, the Bible. He understands people like that!” This is Muntyan’s message to his followers: if you can’t pay, you can’t be saved. And we don’t need people like you.

The path to Vozrozhdeniye (Resurrection) – through the industrial zone and mud. Photo courtesy of the author.“Muntyan has a particular type of ministry,” says a church member, a pensioner. “He is engaged in very large projects that need a lot of money, and lots of people, including me, provide him with it. Two days ago I handed over my partnership tithe, as I do every month. I’ve visited five of his ‘Moses Mountain’ courses.” This woman has been coming to Muntyan’s church for a long time, but still has eye problems and can barely see. She admits that she can’t afford to come to all the church events.

“There was a summit recently, in December,” she tells me. “They were asking 4,000 hryvnya (£107) for registration. The leader of the home group just told me to borrow the cash and pay it back later. But if I have no one to borrow from and nothing to pay it back with, then what? How could they make me borrow 4,000 hryvnya when my monthly pension is just 1,500?” she complains, but stops herself short. “I don’t want to offend anyone – not the Lord or his anointed, and I don’t slander anyone.”

There is a persistent odour of old clothes and unwashed bodies in the room.

“Say: I am a winner!” calls the pastor.
“I am a winner!” respond the congregation.

Their model “winners” are Vladimir and his wife Viktoria. At Sunday services, other pastors, among them colleagues from other countries, tell the story of his hard path. Videos about Muntyan often show a photo of pastor Vladimir at the start of his journey. The skinny, smiling young man, in a white shirt and trousers, is standing beside his wife with a bible college in the background, and then he is playing a guitar, his hair a thick black mop, or instructing a small group of followers in Pereshchepyne.

The photo of the young Pastor Vladimir arouses friendly laughter in his flock. Muntyan has physically changed over the last 20 years, and turned into their idea of a successful person. He has an American smile, a muscular, tattooed torso that he flaunts on his Facebook page and photos of his trips to exotic destinations – a lifestyle unattainable for many of his parishioners.

As well as exercising his apostolic calling, Vladimir Mirchavich Muntyan is a businessman. He is the co-founder of Millionaire Ltd, a company whose main business is producing pasta, but subsidiary activities include everything from brokering trade in fuel, ore, agricultural products, animals and semi-processed goods to trading in foodstuffs, drinks and tobacco products. He has, in addition, yet another business, Neo Production, that makes films and TV programmes, while his son Daniil heads his own video company. The Resurrection religious organisation is registered in his wife Viktoria’s name.

Vladimir Muntyan. Source: vladimirmuntyan.comThe church has its own charitable foundation, which regularly collects donations to help disabled children, cancer patients, elderly people, the military and displaced people. There is no open access documentation of the foundation’s work, but the religious centre’s website has a whole section with videos of grateful recipients accepting its charity.

Resurrection is also a media empire, with its own TV channel of the same name and live broadcasts of services and crusades as well as sermons from the Apostle. It also has its own social media platform, a message app with a range of stickers with photos of Vladimir and Viktoria and an online shop.

Bringing God into politics

In the summer of 2014, hundreds of Resurrection followers dressed in yellow and blue t-shirts gathered outside Kyiv’s city council building, where they prayed for Vitaly Klitschko, the city’s newly elected mayor, and President Petro Poroshenko.

“A new time is coming,” they announced from the building’s steps.

The group also held a mass rally outside the Central Election Commission building as city counsellors met for their first working session. Over two thousand people, in the same t-shirts and carrying Ukrainian flags, prayed “for peace and unity in Ukraine and for our government”.

“At this difficult moment for our country we, as believers, as Christians, fulfil our obligation to God and our people – we pray daily for peace in Ukraine and for unity and good government. Just as our thousands of soldiers defend us from terrorists every day and every hour, so should we show great devotion in our prayers to God,” declared Muntyan, who had decided to bless the work of the president, Kyiv’s mayor and council members. They, admittedly, ignored the initiative.

Resurrection also regularly assembled its flock during the Euromaidan, often for night prayers where Muntyan would explain the relevance of his views to the situation in the country.

In the first days of March 2014, when people had already died on the Maidan and ex-president Viktor Yanukovych had fled, the Apostle told his followers: “Today America and Russia are squabbling and we are hostage to their political game. Who can we rely on? We will not rely on one side or the other, but on Almighty God.”

At the same service, the church members were shown letters written by Maidan protesters, including messages of thanks for a donation of 100,000 hryvnya (£2,670) from the Ukrainian Coordinating Centre for International Aid to Victims, headed at the time by Olha Bohomolets, and for 30,000 hryvnya (£800) for the Central Civil Defence Staff, signed by Andriy Parubiy, then HQ Commandant and now Speaker of Ukraine’s parliament. And while donations were also collected for those on the other side of the barricades, according to Muntyan, his church raised 209,000 hryvnya for people who suffered from “police activities at the Maidan”. At the time, it also planned to take part in the reconstruction of Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s central thoroughfare.

“It’s the devil who’s our enemy, not the Russians. It’s not the Russians that do it, it’s the devil”

“The devil wants war, dead people, fear among the public. He wants Russia and Ukraine to be like enemies, not friends,” declared the Apostle, whose views on the situation in eastern Ukraine and Crimea are consistent. “Russia, Russian people, are, after all the same as us – half of the people in Ukraine are Russians and half of the people in Russia, Ukrainians. How can we be enemies? Our relatives live there. It’s the devil who’s our enemy, not the Russians. It’s not the Russians that do it, it’s the devil. And this mood the Russians have got into – it’s the devil winding them up against Ukrainians and making them say that we’re all nationalists and Banderites and so on. It’s the demons that do that. And it’s the same here: the demons are winding Ukrainians up against Russians.”

In the summer of 2016, Muntyan held an international prayer meeting at Kyiv’s Palace of Sport during his “Moses Mountain” bible course. The apostle’s speech, heard by 10,000 people, was very much in the spirit of the decommunisation policies being implemented in Ukraine at the time:

“You and I are the fruit, the harvest, the result of the price paid by people who believed in God and carried this banner in Soviet times. Those people went to prison, experienced humiliations, suffered for Christ, and they paid this great price so that you and I could believe in God and not be sent to prison or humiliated for it”.

In May 2016, the first politicians – deputy parliamentary speaker Oksana Syroyid and Kyiv City Council member Serhiy Husovsky, both members of the Samopomich political party – appeared on the church’s stage.

“The pastor told us to ‘bring God into politics’. I think that is our common aim, our greatest challenge,” said Syroyid, whose message to the congregation focused on decentralisation, the draft law on Ukraine’s occupied territories and a new law on elections.

Admittedly, Muntyan had to correct her. After the deputy speaker described Russia as an aggressor, he added that “the people of Russia and Ukraine are brothers” and flirtatiously invited her to join his church given her ability to deliver a great sermon.

Vladimir Muntyan as Nestor Dyachenko in “Servant of the People”. Source: 112. The Apostle himself has not declared any political ambitions of his own, but is happy to play the role of Pastor Nestor Dyachenko, a presidential candidate in the popular TV satirical serial Servant of the People. “It wasn’t my plan to become president, but a voice from above told me: stand up and go. And you: stand up and vote. For the sake of the Lord,” Muntyan-Dyachenko tells his audience.

Muntyan, however, for all these efforts, remains a political amateur. Political heavyweights such as Yulia Tymoshenko prefer the Evangelical Church of Christians of Ukraine. Mykhaylo Panochko, the head of this church, the largest Pentecostal organisation in Ukraine, preaches from the tribune on the Maidan and discusses family politics in the Verkhovna Rada. The organisation he heads is a member of the interconfessional All-Ukrainian Council of Churches, and President Viktor Yushchenko also awarded him the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise.

Spiritual asset-grabbing

Ukraine’s Pentecostalists keep their distance from Muntyan and the Resurrection church.

“It’s a distortion, it bullies people, it’s just another pyramid scheme like the one run by his predecessor Sandey Adelaje [an evangelical pastor defrocked after admitting to multiple affairs with female parishioners] that cheated our people,” said Panochko in 2013 in response to Muntyan’s running of a “healing mission” for an entire month at the capital’s Palace of Sport. “I am amazed at our government’s behaviour. They should be reacting to this.”

Gennady Mokhnenko, the bishop of the Pentecostal Ukrainian Church of God is also an outspoken critic of Muntyan. In his video blogs, Mokhnenko denounces the Apostle for his fake “healings” as well as fraud and his harassment of and insulting attitude to his flock.

“He’s a very dishonest man,” says Mokhnenko, accusing Muntyan of an excessive love of money. “I was a businessman before I became a churchman. I’m nearly 50 now, and I still can’t provide a normal standard of living for my family. The pastor, on the other hand, has adopted 32 orphans and built a children’s rehabilitation centre, the ‘Pilgrim Republic’. As soon as war broke out in eastern Ukraine, he became a chaplain of the Ukrainian army and he and his team travelled around the front the equivalent of four times round the earth.”

The media are also on Muntyan’s back, exposing his lavish lifestyle. As well as his Ferrari and luxury homes, they have uncovered the Apostle’s criminal past: according to the TSN TV channel, before founding his church he was convicted of theft and fraud and spent time in a special prison colony in Kryvyi Rih, in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region.

Source: Youtube.Muntyan denies all these allegations, accuses his critics of lying and threatens them with the courts. To defend himself, he resorts to heated arguments on social media and denounces his competitors during his church services and on TV. He has, however, a good name among some national TV channels.

In 2013 the Ukrainian Council of Churches (UMS) announced that Muntyan and Resurrection would no longer be recognised by the Evangelical community and called on all Ukrainian Christians, and especially church leaders, to be cautious and take steps to protect themselves and people close to them from his influence.

“Muntyan has often stated in public, including during UMS meetings, that his mission is not the creation of a new union of churches but the staging of evangelical crusades in every region of Ukraine, designed to provide help for local churches,” ran the UMS statement. “In fact, at the same time, the Resurrection Spiritual Centre he heads was carrying out its own wide-ranging exercise in rapid church-building throughout the country and the affiliation of existing churches to these new ones, including those belonging to other denominations.”

The council also identified “typical signs of totalitarian sectarianism” in Resurrection’s activities: the use of psychological stress and consciousness manipulation techniques; the constant emphasis on the superiority of his ministry over others; the creation in members of his congregation of excessive attachment to himself and his organisation; the formation of a personality cult and the promise he made of guaranteed access to Divine blessing in return for large donations. His “healing” sessions are considered an occult practice, dubious in terms of Evangelical teachings.

Since 2013, Apostle Vladimir hasn’t been a member of the UMC: he left it himself, thus removing any need for him to comply with its recommendations and at the same time creating an image of his church as “persecuted and beleaguered”.

Losing control

“When a phenomenon reaches a certain mass at national level, it needs to be assessed by government,” says theologist and Doctor of Philosophy Viktor Bondarenko. “We need to carry out an expert review and take a decision on the basis of its conclusions.”

“In a country with such a large number of active religious organisations, there is effectively no organ to do this,” Bondarenko continues. Until 2005, Bondarenko headed Ukraine’s State Committee for Religious Affairs, but in 2012 that organ was abolished and its functions transferred to one of the departments of the Ministry of Culture. Bondarenko believes that the Ministry’s remit is now so wide that it simply cannot physically cope with its responsibilities.

Resurrection was subjected to a review in 2007, and as a result Muntyan was forbidden to hold mass events at a stadium in Dnipropetrovsk. The review’s conclusion included the fact that actors were involved in the “healing” and that loud rhythmic music, constantly changing coloured lighting and a pendulum effect could put people into a trance.

In late 2016, when posters appeared in Lviv advertising Muntyan’s Resurrection TV channel, members of the Lviv Regional Council attempted to ban its transmission in the region on the grounds that the “visual effects are harmful to viewers’ physical, psychological and moral development.” There has, however been no ban as yet and the Channel continues to broadcast.

Viktoria Titarenko, a theologist, believes that a ban is not the answer: “Any ban means the loss of some observational monitoring, especially as the law on the activities on religious bodies is framed in such a way as to allow these bodies to function with or without official registration. And being ‘persecuted and beleaguered’ only brings people closer together, because it gives them a feeling of having been chosen. And as for harm – where’s the harm? What do we mean by harm? A faith that is different from that of other people? And do the Moscow Patriarchate’s negative connotations not cause more harm to Orthodoxy?” asks Titarenko, saying that she doesn’t want to excuse or defend the Resurrection church. Instead, she believes alternative forms of religious life should exist, and people should be informed about the church’s work at all levels.

“There is another problem: a low level of religious literacy,” says Titarenko. “Despite the fact that Ukraine remains a nominally Christian country, where statistically, over 90% of organisations have a basis in Christianity and about 50% are Orthodox, we are desperately ignorant of the tenets of our faith.”

In Ukraine, there is no ban on religious organisations, which is, on the one hand, democratic – but on the other, gives less protection from fraud and manipulation by dishonest religious organisations. The only bodies that could now deal with Resurrection church are Ukrainian law enforcement. They are the people who should be looking at financial machinations and pressure being brought on people. But it seems they’re not yet interested.

 

About the author

Tetiana Kozak reports on conflicts connected to the transformation of the former Soviet Union, new conflicts related to the refugee crisis and the rise of nationalism in Europe.

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