Tuesday, 8 July 1997

PARLIAMENT'S BILL THREATENS 'INITSIATIVNIKI' BAPTISTS     by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     Like most 'initsiativniki' Baptists, NIKOLAI POZDNYAKOV does not readily discuss his affairs with strangers.  For decades these Baptists, the most uncompromisingly independent in Russia, have practiced their faith in a semi-clandestine manner, shunning nearly all contact with the secular authorities.  Pastor Pozdnyakov questioned a representative of the Keston News Service at some length before agreeing to provide any information; what finally satisfied him was Keston's association with MICHAEL ROWE, the well-known British specialist on Russian Protestantism.       Pozdnyakov said that his Moscow congregation is not now being persecuted, but he predicted that this will change if PRESIDENT YELTSIN signs the legislation on religion recently passed by the Russian parliament.  Supporters of the bill have said that the 'initsiativniki' Baptists will not be affected by its restrictions on state registration of religious bodies since the 'initsiativniki' do not have state registration and do not even want it - but Pozdnyakov disagrees.     During the brief period of religious freedom in Russia - a period which according to Pozdnyakov is now coming to an end - his congregation has been able to build a relationship with a German-based mission called 'Herald of Peace'.  The congregation itself is not registered, but the German mission is.  The mission also has the status of a 'legal personality' under Russian law, which the indigenous congregation does not.  (The mission's official representative in Moscow is Pozdnyakov's own son Pavel.) Through the Germans, the Russian Baptists have been able to rent a public auditorium for their twice-weekly worship services.  But if the parliament's proposal becomes law, Pozdnyakov predicts that the German group will lose its registration, 'and we'll be pushed out onto the street'.  He also expects that his group's small journal, 'Slovo istiny' ('The Word of Truth') will have to cease publication.     The 'initsiativniki' Baptists broke with the officially registered Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the early 1960s, rejecting the official group's willingness to compromise with the Soviet state on issues such as not teaching religion to children.  The 'initsiativniki' tend to be more conservative in their theology and more suspicious of outsiders. During the Brezhnev years they produced disproportionate numbers of prisoners of conscience - of which Pozdnyakov was one.     If enforced literally, the parliament's bill would threaten the 'initsiativniki' in another way by requiring all existing religious bodies to go through mandatory re-registration before the end of 1999, and all newly formed ones to report their existence to the state even if they do not seek the rights of legal personalities.  Since the 'initsiativniki' refuse on principle to have such contacts with the state, the parliament's bill would create a new legal basis for arrests, fines and the forcible dissolution of congregations which seek nothing but to be left alone. (END)