RUSSIA: Baptist Evangelical Campaigns Broken Up.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 18 August 2001

Baptists taking advantage of the brief Russian summer to stage open-air evangelistic campaigns have had their meetings broken up by various regional police. The incidents concern the so-called Initsiativniki Baptists, an 'initiative group' which broke away from the mainstream Baptist Church in the 1960s in protest at Soviet demands that it cease missionary activity and religious instruction to children. Taking as their sole authority the New Testament command 'to go into all the world and preach the Gospel', the Initsiativniki have always rejected registration as unacceptable state interference.

According to a 14 July church statement, Baptists from the towns of Belovo, Prokopyevsk and Guryevsk in the Siberian region of Kemerovo, 217 miles or 3500 km east of Moscow, decided to hold an evangelistic gathering in a tent in the nearby settlement of Insky from 9 July onwards. When they refused to take down the tent on the orders of the local chief-of-police, officers 'knocked down the tent and confiscated literature, detained three brothers and charged them for violating public order.' Subsequently, states the report, the charges were reduced to a formal warning, and the literature was returned.

Police reportedly returned on the morning of 12 July after the Baptists had re-erected the tent, however, and again demolished it, this time confiscating its upper half. The same three Baptists were later fined 750 roubles each (approximately 40 pounds sterling or 25 US dollars). When a worship service nevertheless took place at 6pm the same day, the police demanded that those present disperse - to protests from local residents, according to the report. Although the Baptists were able to recover the confiscated part of the tent from the police station that evening, they claim that officers are continued to order that the service be curtailed.

Speaking to Keston on 17 August, head of the department for relations with religious organisations in Kemerovo region, Boris Kirpikov, said that the Baptists had set up the tent in Inskoi's main square without prior permission. According to the 1997 law on religion, he maintained, worship services 'take place without hindrance in religious buildings and structures and on their adjoining territory' (Article 16, Part 2), in other instances 'in accordance with the rules established for mass rallies, street processions and demonstrations' (Article 16, Part 5). The Baptists therefore should have obtained prior permission for their meetings, he argued.

Although they had attempted to obtain such permission, explained Kirpikov, the local police were unable to make appropriate arrangements on the dates in question, as they were involved with 'other affairs' (Kirpikov was unable to specify further). Although the Baptists were offered alternative dates, he said, they went ahead with their original plans, ignored a warning and were thus fined for violating public order: 'the law is the law.'

According to another report from the Initsiativniki dated 1 August, Baptists from the Volga region held a service of evangelism in a tent in the town of Mariinsky Posad, Republic of Chuvashia (455 miles or 725 km east of Moscow) on 29 July. The following day local police officers and public procuracy officials reportedly demanded that the preachers leave town, which they refused to do. According to the report, the law enforcement agents then began to swear and shout at the Baptists and break up their tent, before arresting three of the believers - Vladimir Terentyev, Vladimir Martyanov and Anatoli Mikhailov.

The Baptists claim that the three arrested were further jeered at at the police station: 'During interrogation Colonel Yelizar Koshkin began to hit Terentyev, mainly about the head, and pulled his hair: Captain Valeri Ikov punched him in the stomach.' In court the three were given an official warning, and were again arrested on 1 August along with a further four Baptists who were manning bookstalls in different parts of the town.

Speaking to Keston on 17 August, deputy minister of culture and national and religious affairs in the Republic of Chuvashia, Mikhail Krasnov, claimed not to know the details of what had happened, at first confusing the incident with a similar one last summer. He stressed that there was a branch of the mainstream Baptist Union registered in Chuvashia which acted 'within the law', and with whom the authorities had good relations. These unregistered Baptists, however, were 'not ours', said Krasnov, but came to Chuvashia with neither prior notification nor invitation: 'They want to set up a tent and distribute literature - that's open religious propaganda.'

Although Krasnov said the authorities were not opposed to an organisation doing this in Chuvashia, he claimed that in accordance with the 1997 law it could only do so either in the region where it was registered or if invited by a registered organisation in his republic - and if it informed the authorities in advance. (Although foreigners require an invitation from a registered religious organisation to conduct religious activity in Russia, the 1997 law does not in fact specify restrictions on indigenous religious organisations conducting preaching activity from region to region.)

In a third incident, Initsiativniki Baptist Ruslan Kapkayev was reportedly sentenced to three days' detention on 24 July, when he and two others tried to preach in the settlement of Shakhovskaya, on the western edge of Moscow Region. Speaking to Keston by telephone on 17 August, acting head of administration in Shakhovskaya, Vladimir Masalov, said he knew nothing about the incident.

These events broadly resemble those in other regions of Russia reported by Keston in previous summers (see KNS 24 August 1999, 3 July and 22 September 2000). (END)