Sunday Adelajah, a Nigerian who came to the former Soviet bloc 18 years ago to study journalism, became a pastor instead. Now Adelajah leads a 26,000-member Pentecostal church called the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations, in Kiev. In the wake of the presidential election controversy, Adelajah and the church have taken a stand in support of opposition candidate Victor Yuschenko, who was poisoned during the campaign. Earlier rounds of voting were riddled with fraud, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner, despite two independent exit polls showing he had lost. Initially, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the election of Yanukovych.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in peaceful protests, and the country's Supreme Court ordered a new election between Yanukovych and Yuschenko for December 26. Aiding the protesters are Adelajah and his church. Adelajah, 37, spoke with Stan Guthrie, CT's senior associate news editor.

What brought you to that part of the world?

I was studying journalism in Minsk at the Belarusian State University. I finished my master's in 1992. So I went from there to the Ukraine to work with one of the first independent television stations after the collapse of Communism. They had never heard commercial television before then. As I was working on that television station, I had an encounter with the Lord. So that encounter led me to resign my appointment, because I was sure God was telling me that I was majoring in bad news in the regular news, but that he had called me to major in Good News. And what this country needed most at this time was not journalists. They had enough journalists who could report news. But he really needed me to focus on his news and be ready to champion the cause of spiritual regeneration and revival in that part of the world.

How did you start your church?

Well, I made an announcement on television that anybody who wants to study anything about the Bible, that they could come and have a meeting with me. Because I was limited financially, I had to start my first congregation in my apartment. We started studying the Bible with the several people. Of course, initially I was very discouraged because I was expecting "normal people" to come, maybe students, maybe teachers, maybe market women, but the people who showed up were drug addicts and alcoholics. I'm a black man. I'm originally from Nigeria, and in the Soviet Union, they look down on people of color and because Communism had taught them that these people are inferior and only Communism could salvage them and save them. And through revolution they could become normal.

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So that's how the regular Soviet person would look at you. A regular Soviet Russian or Ukrainian would never go to listen to a black man. Because they think they are supposed to teach you, what can you teach them?

Anyway, I had a very hard time. It was a challenge for me in the beginning to have members, because people would just not go. I understand that. If I had been brought up in such a culture, I would find it difficult myself to cross the road to listen to any black man talk and to try to teach me about God—especially in a culture when you are taught that there is no God in the first place. The only thing I was taught when I was in the university there is how to prove that there is no God through science and mathematics and physics.

The first four years, I couldn't get any Russians saved. But God directed me that if I really wanted to be effective, I must go to the down and out people, and I should not expect the "regular people" to come.

So I began to reach out to the alcoholic, because that was a national problem at that point. And we began to have some results. And I think the reason for that might be because the people who are alcoholic are already down and out, and they're already blind to any color.

But God helped me with the rehabilitation of these people. In the process, their relatives and parents would see that these people are becoming normal, and they don't smoke, they don't drink, they are tidy, and they wear clean clothes. They began to have their parents come and they now began to see me as their savior. And the parents, who never used to regard or have any respect for a black man, they began to rejoice and say, "Thank you for my son." They began to say, "We have spent all the money possible; we've taken them to the best doctors and couldn't really have any positive results. If this kind of ministry will have such an effect on my son or daughter, we will begin to come to your church." That's how our church began to grow rapidly, because we intensified our walk with the down and out people. The relatives began to come, and then other people began to come.

The church has grown considerably since then.

Today, our church is probably the largest church in all of Europe. Because of our influence, we have many politicians in our church. We have businessmen. One of the other presidential candidates is from our church. And God has blessed us. Right now we just need the help of the world so that the Russian government and the Russian president would not dictate the past, which is communistic, which is atheistic. That is what they're trying to impose on the Ukraine now. But the Ukrainian people have experienced this liberty. Thousands of people just from our church alone, and from all the churches in this area and the country—and not just Protestants but even the Orthodox and Catholics—everybody is fighting for freedom and for a free and fair election in our country.

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When the Wall [in East Germany] came down, there were only 250,000 evangelicals, Protestants, in [Ukraine]. But right now, we are at 3 million. That's the official statistic of the Ministry of Religion. Of course, in Russia the growth is not as good. And Putin has said, "You Ukrainians don't have authority, because this 'sect' and these 'cult groups' are mushrooming in your country." The candidate, the [current] prime minister, who has been supported by Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, said that one of the first things he's going to deal with if he becomes the president is these "cult" and "sectarian" groups. So this actually is a threat, not just to democracy, [but] to everything we've gained during all the years of independence.

We think that the world must hear firsthand that this is not just an election that was violated, but this is an attempt to keep the country in bondage and take the country back to the days … under Communism. There's a group of people that are calling themselves democrats, but really they're from the past. They're still the same old people, the old Communist people. We are afraid of all the mafia groups, and I'm afraid to say that, to be honest. It's a fact in the Ukraine that the prime minister, who wants to become the president, has been in prison a number of times. How could such a person become the president of the nation?

The most important thing is that 80 percent of the nation is supporting Victor Yuschenko, who is an opposition candidate, and is a godly man. He shares God, and he respects all the churches, all the pastors. This is the time God has given to the [people of] Ukraine to have a free choice of where they want to go. The people want to go democratic. And these [other] people think they could still do things the way they used to do.

Who is the presidential candidate who attends your church?

Leonid Schermozetskiy is president of the Christian Liberal Party. He is member of our church. Victor Yuschenko doesn't identify with any church officially but is a believer. So what is happening is that the presidential candidate from our church has signed a coalition treaty with Victor Yuschenko, so it's like they're in the same party right now. They're supporting one another.

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Will the election on the 26th just be between Yuschenko and Yanukovych?

Yes, that is the strategy.

What is your role in the crisis as a leading pastor?

Because I am not an official citizen, the only thing I can do is to help my members and enlighten them. We have members who are in Parliament. We have a large number of people in the city. Our people took to the streets just to stand for their rights. People who are not Christians took to the streets also, and then from all over the country people came. So we have from 5,000 to 10,000 people in the street every day just from our church.

Several organizations that are supporting the opposition brought out their tents and pitched their tents in the streets, [and people are] sleeping in the streets right there. We have a tent with some of our people sleeping there. Besides that, because it's so cold and not too many people could stay outside day in and day out, we've taken in at least 1,000 people to our church every night to change, to come and rest and get warm a little bit.

We've been very active. And, of course, we have brought a Christian flavor to the demonstrations. Our church, together with all the Christian churches and leaders, for the first time has united in the Ukraine. Now, every morning at the independent square, the demonstration starts with prayer. And we don't just pray for five minutes. All the denominational leaders pray from 8:00 in the morning till 10:00 in the morning before all the political speeches begin. Then we also close every day with prayers from 9:00 in the evening 'til 10:00 in the evening. So people pray—whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and pastors, everybody. People come together and pray every day before the politicians begin to speak. And that's really brought some peaceful atmosphere to the whole thing, because no glass has been broken, no vandalism has happened. No violent things have been said. People are not drinking. In the Ukraine, people tend to drink a lot of vodka and many are alcoholics. But what has really been surprising here is that despite the number of unbelievers that are there, still nobody is drinking. [There has been] no kind of violence and no fighting. That is totally unbelievable. God has really helped us, and I think it's because of the Christian influence.

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Are you preaching?

Oh, yes. We have in the square hundreds of pastors from all over the country. Parallel to the political speeches that are going on, we have a little stage there at the end of the stage in the square where we had fasting and prayer. About 400 or 500 pastors are there every day, praying with microphones to the whole square so everybody could come and join us in prayer, praying for Ukraine and fasting and preaching and giving the Christian alternative as the way out for the nation.

What is the situation for evangelical churches in the country right now?

Well, right now it's quite free. It is not bad. But what we are afraid of is that if these people, the prime minister and the pro-Russian government, come in, they have threatened to clamp down on the evangelical "sects and cults." That is where the fear is. A pastor friend of mine was told to support the prime minister, and he said he would not. So they said, "After the election when we win, we'll close down your church." And that could happen to any one of us.

What do you expect will happen, and what should happen?

Well, we feel we have [experienced] victory already. The country [has seen] victory in the sense that the judiciary is refusing to follow the tones of the presidency. The judiciary was able to say, "No, they have to re-run the elections." That's a major victory, because, normally, all the arms of government would fight the people and would all be together. But now the Supreme Court has ruled that the election has to be re-run. We feel that definitely the opposition candidate, Victor Yuschenko, will win, but we need to be prayed for because … the other [side] might take their own people to the streets, also, and that could really paralyze the country. So, we're in a very sensitive, very difficult time—the most difficult time in our history.

Some have said that Putin would rather die than allow a pro-Western government in the Ukraine, which is the largest country [in the region] outside of Russia. It's the largest neighbor that Russia has. To them, it would be like suicide. So he would never allow the opposition to win. And so we need all the help we can. Only God knows how serious the situation is. We need the Western people to keep on [making known] their support, voicing their support, that this is not just a Ukrainian thing, that we are not isolated, that it's not just the ordinary people who don't have any political strength that are trying to stand and win their rights. The Russians have to know that, no, the whole world is watching and the whole Christian world is watching. We need as much prayer as possible from every quarter.

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Related Elsewhere:

News elsewhere on the upcoming election re-run in the Ukraine include:

Putin Agrees to Respect Ukraine Election Result | Russian President Vladimir Putin said he will respect the result of the rerun second round of the Ukrainian presidential election on Dec. 26. and sees no problem if opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko wins. (Bloomberg, Dec. 21)
Campaigning gets tough in Ukraine election re-run | Campaigning for coming Sunday's re-run of the second and final round of Ukraine's presidential election is hotting up. (Radio Netherlands, Netherlands, Dec. 21)
Righting Wrongs in Ukraine | Should he win his hard-fought campaign to become Ukraine's president on Sunday, what should reformer Viktor Yushchenko do about Ukraine's outgoing president, the autocratic Leonid Kuchma? (Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 21)
Yushchenko convoy turned away from eastern Ukrainian city by supporters of prime minister | Supporters of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko traveling in a convoy of 50 orange-draped cars ran into a roadblock of his rival's backers Tuesday and failed to carry their campaign into this industrial city -- a center of opposition to Yushchenko. (Associated Press, Dec. 21)
Ukraine Presidential Candidates Meet in Televised Debate | Ukraine's two presidential candidates hold a contentious televised debate. Monday's eagerly awaited encounter came just six days before this Sunday's court-ordered run-off election. The two had never met before in public. (World, npr, Dec. 21)