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Armed and masked soldiers arrested Pastor Leonid Ponomaryov, pastor of a Baptist Council of Churches congregation in Russian-occupied Mariupol, and his wife Tatyana. They took them from their home on the evening of September 21. Family and church members have not been able to find out who took the Ponomaryovs since and why, or where they are currently being held.

Neighbors “distinctly heard groans and screams” as the masked men took Leonid and Tatyana “in an unknown direction”, local Baptists said. The two men were first taken to the police station and told they would be detained until the end of the Russian-controlled referendum on the status of the Donetsk region. However, they were not released when the referendum ended on September 27.

Russia illegally annexed the Donetsk People’s Republic last Wednesday, retaining the name.

Russian officials initially claimed the couple had been involved in “extremist activities” and had searched the Baptist church. They sealed the church to prevent future worship meetings from taking place. Some other Protestant churches — including at least one other local Council of Baptist Churches congregation — can still meet for worship in Mariupol, though others have been forcibly closed.

Forum 18 was unable to find out who seized Pastor Leonid Ponomaryov and his wife, or why. The duty officer of the Ministry of State Security of the Donetsk People’s Republic – who did not give his name – forwarded all requests to the police. “For kidnappings, if that’s the case, you should go to the police,” he said. Forum 18 last Thursday. Told that armed, masked men in army uniforms took the couple away, the officer repeated his response.

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The duty officer of the Russian-controlled police of the Kalmiusky (Ilichivsky) district in Mariupol, where the Ponomaryovs live, declined to answer questions. “We cannot give any information over the phone,” she said. Forum 18 last Thursday. She refused to put Forum 18 contact or give a phone number to Pavel Sotnikov, the district police chief. Mariupol city police phone went unanswered every time Forum 18 called last week.

The woman who answered the phone of the missing persons department of the DPR human rights ombudsman’s office in Donetsk, who did not want to give her name, said she could not provide information to third parties. “We have a personal data protection law,” she said. Forum 18 Last week. “Only relatives can appeal to our office and must do so in writing.”

The press secretary of the ombudsman’s office in Donetsk, who only gave her name to Inna, referred all inquiries about the Ponomaryovs to the police. She refused to discuss anything else, because Forum 18 is not accredited as a media with the authorities of the DPR.

The phone of the DPR General Prosecutor’s Office in Donetsk remained unanswered each time Forum 18 called last Thursday.

In an Oct. 3 statement to its members and congregations internationally, the International Council of Churches called for appeals for the Ponomaryovs to be sent “ONLY from churches in the Russian Federation.”

Soldiers visit Mariupol church and seize pastor during worship meeting

Since Russian forces occupied Mariupol, Russian police have repeatedly visited the home of Leonid Ponomaryov and his wife Tatyana in Kalmiusky (Ilichivsky) district north of Mariupol. They had also summoned him more than once for questioning. Ponomaryov heads one of the city’s congregations of the Council of Baptist Churches.

Council of Churches Baptists do not seek official permission to exist in any of the countries where they operate. Their places of worship are therefore not registered and are the private property of one or more members of the church.

War damage in Mariupol in March 2022. (Photo: Flickr/ Creative Commons / Wanderer777.)

In early September, soldiers went to the church of Pastor Ponomaryov on Kurchatov Street in the northeast of the city. They asked church members to open the church for the Russian-backed authorities to hold the referendum for Ukraine’s Donetsk region to join Russia, which was held September 23-27. Church members refused, noted Voice of the Martyrs Korea, which maintains contact with local authorities. The Christians. Authorities then sealed off the church building.

Church members reopened the church for their regular Sunday meeting for worship. However, soldiers returned during the service and took Pastor Ponomaryov, who was leading the service, away, Voice of the Martyrs Korea added.

Military personnel also inspected religious literature at the church but appeared to find nothing “extremist”.

After the service, church members went to the military office with documents proving that the house is private property. They noted that according to the DPR Referendum Bill adopted on September 20, the referendum should be held in premises provided by the authorities, not in a private house. Authorities reviewed the documents and released Pastor Ponomaryov.

Armed and masked soldiers seize the pastor and his wife

On the evening of September 21, a group of armed, masked men wearing Russian or DPR military uniforms arrived at the Ponomaryovs’ home in cars without license plates. “Seeing the numberless military vehicles, neighbors began to come out into the streets to find out what had happened,” local Baptists noted Oct. 3. “But they were ordered to go home and not go out.

The gunmen remained at the Ponomaryovs’ home for about two and a half hours. By then it was dark, but “neighbours distinctly heard moans and screams” as the masked men led Leonid and Tatiana “in an unknown direction”, local Baptists said.

On September 22, church members tried to find out the whereabouts of Leonid and Tatyana Ponomaryov. “But neither then nor in the following days could they get an answer,” local Baptists lamented. A Russian Interior Ministry officer told relatives they need not worry as they would be released immediately after the referendum, which ended on September 27.

Also on September 22, Russian occupation force officials raided and searched the Baptist Church on Kurchatov Street, seizing religious literature and sealing the building, local Baptists noted.

Some other Protestant churches — including at least one other Council of Churches Baptist congregation — can still meet for worship in Mariupol. Another Council of Churches congregation held its Harvest Festival worship service on Sunday, Oct. 2, “despite recent events,” local Baptists noted. Several churches have been involved in humanitarian aid for refugees in the region.

Church members search for missing pastor and wife

On September 30, two pastors from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don traveled to Mariupol to try to find out where Leonid and Tatyana Ponomaryov are being held and why they were arrested. Together with Leonid’s brother, Viktor Ponomaryov, they visited the Ministry of State Security of the DPR, the military headquarters, the prosecutor’s office and the police. “But in all of those agencies, they got the almost identical response, ‘They’re not there, and we don’t know where they are.'”

The three men then traveled to Donetsk to try to get answers from the secret police of the DPR Ministry of Interior and State Security. “There too they received exactly the same answers,” local Baptists noted. The three men then filed a written request with the Ministry of Interior of the DPR. “The application was accepted and they were promised a response within 30 days.”

As the three men were returning from Donetsk to Mariupol, the police telephoned them and asked them to come to the home of Leonid and Tatyana Ponomaryov. Several investigators were present at the home. “They interviewed his brother Viktor and the neighbors, wrote it down briefly and then left,” local Baptists said. Officers had declined to say whether the family would receive any answers.

“In all of their meetings with officials of various entities, when asked by church members to identify themselves, none of the officials gave their name, rank or position,” the officials noted. church members.

Children appeal for seized parents

On October 1, the children of the Ponomaryovs released a statement thanking church members for their prayers for their parents. “For 10 days already, we know nothing about them,” they wrote. “A group of church members from Mariupol and Rostov went around all the agencies and institutions, not only in Mariupol but in the regional center (Donetsk), and nothing was said about our relatives anywhere. that is.”

The Ponomaryovs’ children added that various churches were praying for their parents and fasting on October 2 and 3. They asked that the information be widely disseminated.

In an Oct. 3 statement to its members and congregations internationally, the International Council of Churches called for appeals for the Ponomaryovs to be sent “ONLY from churches in the Russian Federation.”

This article originally appeared on Forum 18 News Service.

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18 News Service.

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