As relations between the American and Russian governments deteriorate amid disputes on Ukraine and other issues, eight Russian church leaders visited Christian ministries and government offices this week on a "peace and understanding" mission.

"We church leaders are here to take out this tension between our countries. We don’t have to let politicians make us enemies," Baptist leader Vitaly Vlasenko told CT.

The visit from the seven Protestants and one Orthodox clergy, began with a meeting at the Charlotte headquarters of the the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), which organized the trip. Among the attendees were BGEA president Franklin Graham (who helped to organize the trip) and representatives from Samaritan’s Purse, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Liberty University, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of God, Biola University, and Wheaton College. On Monday, the Russian leaders visited the US Capitol and met with State Department officials and the UN Commission on International Religious Freedom. Their trip concluded Tuesday at the NAE offices in Washington, D.C.

"As we find tensions increasing once again between Russia, the United States, and Eastern Europe, it is vitally important that we try to build bridges of understanding and respect between the churches in Russia and the West," Graham said. "My father made numerous trips during the Cold War when Eastern Europe and Russia were under Communism and built relationships with the churches in those countries. The hope of this forum is to re-establish the ties that we once had with the newer generation of leadership."

In March, Decision Magazine featured Russian president Vladimir Putin on its cover. Inside, Graham offered qualified commendation for the former KGB officer. “Just a few generations ago, America held the high moral ground. How the times have changed,” said Graham regarding Putin’s strong stance against homosexuality. “To be clear, I am not endorsing President Putin. … [But] in my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,” he continued. “Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

Representing the Russian Orthodox Church was Metropolitan Hilarion, who heads the church's relations with other denominations. (CT interviewed Hilarion in 2011.)

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CT spoke with Vitaly Vlasenko and Sergey Ryakhovsky about their trip. Vlasenko is the director of external church relations for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists. Ryakhovsky is head of the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith and co-chairs the Advisory Committee of Russian Protestant Churches. He is also the only Protestant on a select religious committee that reports to Putin’s office. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, he visited and organized discussions about Pentecostal churches in Crimea joining Russia.

(Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Decision also participated in the interview.)

CT: What is the purpose of your trip?

Ryakhovsky: We are working with the BGEA to continue our relationship between Christians of Russia and of the United States, especially given the problems now between our countries. These are between politicians and not between Christians, because we are outside of politics and we have the same purpose: to preach the gospel, the salvation of people for Christ.

Vlasenko: We church leaders are here to take out this tension between our countries. We don’t have to let politicians make us enemies. We are here to explain what really is going on in Russia, and let our brothers share with us their feelings and answer their questions. Some media have their own goals. Some politicians have their own goals. But our common goal as Christian leaders is peace and understanding.

CT: What misunderstandings do Americans have about the Russian church?

Vlasenko: Some important issues of misunderstanding include how we relate to moral issues, marriage, family, new technology, and the situation with gays. In Russia we stand very strongly on that biblical issue. Trust is a key issue in our relationship with the US church, and we need to build or rebuild this trust. The BGEA and the Russian Baptist Union are really committed to evangelism. We have so many places where the gospel has not arrived, and we can pull together to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to certain areas, not only in Russia but all over the world. We can work together, especially in the Central Asian republics where American missionaries cannot go. We can bring the gospel to Islamic people who do not understand what Christianity is. At this point we can join our efforts to make the world in a better condition and bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation and every tribe.

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CT: What is religious freedom like in Russia?

Vlasenko: We have full religious freedom in our country. Our churches are able to conduct their services. Of course, we do have some regulation by Russian laws, which is understandable, but so far, in the Russian federation, we do have religious freedom. We can share the gospel with anybody according to the Russian’s government laws. Of course, it’s prohibited to preach the gospel in schools. We can invite children to participate in Christian camps with permission from their parents. So far, praise the Lord, our churches are meeting without any problems. They’re worshipping, they’re praying. We have freedom to have distribute Bibles and other literature. We bring in the Christian literature and we have no problem.

Ryakhovsky: We have absolute freedom. My father was imprisoned three times during the Soviet Union, in times of Stalin, Brezhnev, and Khrushchev. Right now, no one is in prison for that. We have complete freedom for preaching the gospel. We have youth ministry and children’s ministry. Our churches are growing. We have, of course, some problems. It’s hard to build buildings and to get land for buildings. But it’s better. I’m the son of the prisoner, but I’m a member of the President’s Council. It’s a miracle.

Decision: How much interest is there in Christianity in Russia?

Vlasenko: There are some similarities between the United States and Russia. In this situation, interest for Christianity is lower than usual, but we ministers try to make it interesting through things like our preaching and through our articles in newspapers.

CT: What is your relationship with Putin like?

Ryakhovsky: I met with Putin and we talked about his past as a spy in Germany during Soviet times. He said he not only knows about our Protestant traditions, he likes our traditions because we work hard, because we are honest, because we stand on the Bible, because we have strong family values and moral values. But in Russia, the largest church is the Orthodox church..

CT: What are the challenges of connecting with Russian young people?

Ryakhovsky: I’m a representative of the charismatic and Pentecostal church. We have a huge youth conference, where thousands of people attend. We do it around the whole country. There are plenty of young people striving to go to God.

Vlasenko: I think our young generation experiences similar problems to the United States. They want to receive a good education. They are looking for better jobs with good pay. Many are wondering how to establish young families. In Russia, there are many divorces. Some symptoms of divorces are very basic. People do not have enough income to rent an apartment or have no hope to buy a house. People have no children because they don’t have enough money to support them. This has been a basic problem in our churches. The economic situation in Russia is difficult. People are losing their jobs. Our pastors are teaching them how to live and be strong in a difficult situation. Our church is trying to give them hope, give them courage, and hold their hands during difficulties in life.

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CT: What is the Russian church doing for the international persecuted church?

Vlasenko: Russian Christians are helping tremendously in Central Asia, in former Soviet Union countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan. The Baptist Union of Russia is very involved with helping those Christians. They are heavily Islamic countries. Some of the churches have been shut down or the police have chased them out. We’re writing all kinds of letters. We talk with the religious leaders to try to find out what we can do to help protect them.

CT: How would you explain Crimea to Americans?

Vlasenko: Behind this piece of land, there’s a lot of history. Of course, for many years it was territory of Ukraine, but historically this land belonged to Russia. Many years ago Russian troops fought for this and took it to the Russian Federation, and one of the Russian leaders gave it to Ukraine. Right now, our nation is divided. It is in divorce. When a family is divorced, people ask "give us our gift back."

From the international view, the Russian Federation looks like the aggressor. They took part of another independent country. But you have to understand that our nations are very close. My last name is a Ukrainian name. I have many relatives that live in Ukraine. Even when Crimea was part of Ukraine, but in our mind it was always Russia. They are Russian speaking people.

I went twice to Crimea and talked to the people. Some people are really eager to come back to Russia, because they speak Russian, they have so much relationship. Russia, in my opinion, has no desire to take over more land or something like this. Of course I’m not a politician, I am a Christian leader. However, I can understand. I can feel it what is going on society, because for many many years when Crimea was part of Ukraine, the many, many Russians said some not very nice words to Mr. Khrushchev who just gave it up. This small land has made tension between our political leaders. One of the difficulties between political leaders and we like parts of societies have some misunderstandings. We need one part of our leadership to explain the history that is behind the land. It’s a complex issue. You have to understand why this decision was made. In my opinion, the Russian Federation has no desire to take more land or create another Soviet Union. Of course, we were a Russian empire in the past, but now we have to obey international laws, rules, and regulations. We want to be a country that has normal life and good relations with everyone. This is our message and no one has instructed us what to say or what to do.

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Of course we need to have more communication with our friends and brothers in Ukraine. We have met twice. Our last meeting was a religion council this fall in Oslo, where some of the Russian Christian leaders met with the Ukrainian Christian leaders. At the end of the meeting, Patriarch Hilarion concluded, "We have brothers and sisters in Christ in Russia." This is what was very good. Let’s understand each other better because some of these hot heads, they want to fight. Let’s come to a discussion or dialogue over this. Let’s talk with the European countries. The Russian people want to be part of the world society.