Land grab threatens YWAM Ukraine

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CWN.org -- The future of Youth With A Mission's work in Ukraine is under threat as the missionary group has fallen victim to a land grab move that's become a common practice in Eastern Europe.

As YWAM leader Kelly Hoodikoff turned a corner on his 3.5 hectare piece of land three weeks ago, he saw a complete stranger digging a well. He knew immediately what was happening.

Three years before, Hoodikoff, YWAM Eastern Europe Regional Leader, was informed that someone had purchased a small parcel of his land behind his back, a practice common in this former Soviet enclave in Eastern Europe and one that is difficult to bring to justice. But never did he imagine that the new "owners" would brazenly begin building right before his eyes.

"I was just shocked," Hoodikoff said. "I never thought I would buy a piece of land and someone would just steal it."

YWAM property extremely valuable

The property, purchased by YWAM in 2005, is located on prime waterfront and is extremely valuable. Local government officials in former Soviet states are routinely bribed to produce legally binding deeds on land that already has a legitimate owner, replacing the legitimate owner's name with a new name on computer records.

YWAM has not been given permission to begin building on the property, relegated to pitching tents for many of its missions activities. Meanwhile, the land-grabbers "have been building furiously night and day" for the past weeks, according to Hoodikoff.

YWAM threatened with harm

Three weeks ago, the new false owners presented documents to prove that they owned the land and threatened harm if YWAM interrupted their building process. YWAM attorneys contacted the regional police but to no avail. The police saw that both parties owned deeds to the land and did nothing to stop the construction.

YWAM then filed a court petition, but the false owners didn't show up for either of the first two hearings. The false owners have since sold part of their smaller property to a third party, who paid an exorbitant sum to purchase it.

More land under threat

"I felt violated, I felt threatened, especially later when they came with construction workers and thugs to protect them," Hoodikoff said. "They threatened to take more of our land."

The false owners appeared in court on Wednesday, December 10. Hoodikoff awaits a court decision that would force the local police to prevent further building from taking place, and hopes that YWAM's international status will pressure authorities to do what's right.

Larger justice issue

He sees this as a larger justice issue, one that not only affects him, but that holds landowners throughout the region hostage to the whims of criminal elements in a society straining toward democracy. Hoodikoff says that although the national government is putting pressure on local authorities to clean house, they still have a long way to go.

A Ukrainian government group called Anti-Raiders is helping Hoodikoff and YWAM Ukraine by pressuring the government to intervene. If YWAM succeeds in securing its property, Hoodikoff says they will have to build a wall and do whatever else is necessary to prevent future land-grabs.

Preparing an international campaign

He laments the need to build a wall in defense of his property but says he wouldn't have a choice. He also says that he is prepared to launch an international campaign to pressure local authorities to intervene if the court decision does not favor YWAM.

"This is not a time to buckle under intimidation," said YWAM Europe Field Director Jeff Fountain. "We need to support our brothers and sisters in concerted prayer as they take action."

YWAM Kiev runs a variety of missionary training schools, cares for orphans, runs a Christian counseling center, and hosts YWAM teams and church groups that come to share their faith with local residents, among many other projects and ministries.

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