RUSSIA: PRESSURE ON PENZA PENTECOSTALS INTENSIFIES

by Mikhail Edelstein, Keston News Service, 15 December 2000

The regional authorities have stepped up pressure on the Living Faith Pentecostal church in the town of Penza, 440 miles (700 km) east of Moscow. The regional governor's office is obstructing the distribution of the church's newspaper, establishments that work with the Pentecostals have been forced to withdraw from joint projects and last month pressure was put on the local cinema, where the church holds services, not to renew the lease.

The church, founded in April 1997 and led by pastor Oleg Serov, now has to hold services in an unfinished building where the temperature falls to minus 15 degrees. Because of the cold, no more than one third of the congregation - around 100 - attended services on 23 and 30 November. Church leaders had not planned to start holding services in the building until January.

The church's secretary, Sergei Strokov, told Keston on 4 December that it had had no significant problems with the authorities until the middle of this year. However, relations worsened on 19 July, when the head of the department for religious faiths in the governor's office, Vladimir Popkov, grabbed several copies of the Living Faith newspaper from distributors and ripped them up. The following day, on Popkov's orders, several distributors were arrested and taken to the regional police department. The newspaper's editor, Aleksei Chekushin, then arrived. After a discussion between Popkov and Chekushin, all those arrested were set free and no police report was drawn up. Similar incidents took place in the following days.

The Penzpechat corporation halted distribution of the paper through its kiosks. At the same time, the regional justice administration launched an `anti-sect' campaign in the state media.

Popkov told Keston on 6 December that local Pentecostals, led by Pastor Serov, had launched a slander campaign against him. He said Living Faith was the only religious organisation in the region in dispute with the authorities. Popkov said the dispute with the paper's distributors arose after people who bought the paper, believing it to be a charitable publication, complained to the regional authorities about its religious content. Popkov believes the publication is contravening its own statute, as well as Russian law.

Almost simultaneously, a veterans' home, the children's hospital, the centre for rehabilitation of young disabled people and the children’s library suddenly refused to continue working with the Pentecostals.

The director of the veterans' home, Anatoli Lomakin, told church leaders he declined help on the orders of the regional Minister for Labour, Viktor Lazarev, who threatened to replace him if he did not do so. Lomakin later denied he had said this. Lomakin was unavailable, as he is currently on leave, but the home's acting director, Andrey Zolotov, told Keston on 6 December that a residents' meeting had taken the decision because church members carried out religious propaganda during visits and because of a slanderous article about the home in the church's paper. No official put any pressure on the home's management.

The children's library director, Mariya Akhunova, confirmed to Keston on 6 December that officials had insisted on a halt to cooperation with the church, though she declined to name them. She said her boss had said that such cooperation infringed the library's statute, adding that her colleagues had been told - wrongly - that Living Faith was not registered and was operating illegally. Strokov said that Akhunova had previously told church members that pressure had come from the regional deputy minister of culture, Olga Kochergina. Keston contacted Kochergina on 6 December, but she declined to comment.

Popkov denied that officials of the governor's office had exerted any pressure, but said such cooperation was illegal as it took place without the knowledge of regional ministers and without the necessary agreements. Popkov claimed that a religious organisation needed a licence to carry out charitable work, which Living Faith did not have. The director of the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Law, Anatoli Pchelintsev, told Keston that the law does not require religious associations to have any additional documents to carry out charitable work.

In the latest difficulty for the church, the regional authorities refused the church an extension to its lease of the Salyut cinema. On 23 November, Strokov reported, Galina Kalmykova of the regional justice administration and Mikhail Kulichkov of the regional ministry for the administration of state property visited the cinema to oversee the Pentecostals' expulsion.

The rental agreement between the Pentecostals, the regional ministry for administration of state property and the cinema covered April to October. In July, church leaders asked for an extension, but were refused. According to Strokov, even before this the head of the department for rental of ministry property, Viktor Komarov, tried to persuade the cinema's director, Svetlana Petrova, to cancel the agreement, but she refused.

On 4 December, Keston spoke to Kulichkov, but he referred all questions to Komarov. That same day, Komarov told Keston that the heads of the regional ministry of culture and of the ministry for the administration of state property had jointly refused an extension, saying the Pentecostals' services were hampering the cinema's essential functions. He described the lease agreement as a mistake from the start.

Cinema director Petrova told Keston on 4 December that she had nothing against Living Faith and said services had not obstructed the cinema's cultural work. (END)