RUSSIA: Protestants Not Welcome in Udmurtia?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 29 August 2001

There is nothing wrong with relations between Protestants and the local authorities in Udmurtia, according to the republic's plenipotentiary for religious affairs, Sergei Ilinsky. Questioned by Keston about the kidnapping on the night of 24-25 July of the head of a 'Novaya Zhizn' ('New Life') Protestant drugs rehabilitation centre and his assistant, Ilinsky praised Dmitry Mafenko's work and suggested that the perpetrator was 'a drugs dealer who resented his success.' The local police and FSB were actively seeking the pair, he assured Keston on 21 August, adding that he was confident that they would be found 'because it is such a serious occurrence.'

Director of the cultural exchange company 'Slovo' (see separate KNS article) and active member of 'Philadelphia', one of the largest Pentecostal churches in Izhevsk, Galina Aminova takes a quite different view. Speaking to Keston on 27 August, she said that local police believe Mafenko to have staged the kidnapping in order to 'raise his popularity.' She also pointed out that on the same night as the kidnapping three Protestant adults (including a pregnant mother) and four children died in an arson attack: 'They were all members of Philadelphia and supporters of Novaya Zhizn.' Ilinsky claimed to be unaware of this event.

Aminova believes the two events to be not only connected, but also heavily influenced by the local Udmurt authorities' hostility towards Protestants. The churches' active anti-drink and drugs campaigning collides with the interests of local politicians as well as drugs dealers, she maintains, since 'you can't manipulate a sober mind.' In addition to the difficulties experienced by her former employee Craig Rucin (see separate KNS article), Aminova told Keston that the 800-strong Philadelphia congregation was recently blocked from renting its usual Izhevsk cinema theatre for services at 10am due to a film showing. 'They can't refuse us directly, but it is clear that they don't want us there. Who goes to the cinema at 9am on a Sunday morning?'

Aminova also believes that the local authorities - particularly the FSB - are attempting to fight the growing influence of local churches through virulently anti-Protestant articles in the Udmurt press. On 28 February 2001 the state-owned 'Udmurtskaya Pravda' ('Truth of Udmurtia') carried the article 'Starred and Striped Trojan Horse', which accused Slovo of financially supporting a project by a young ethnic Tatar Protestant, Takhir Bayanov, to produce Christian television programmes in the Tatar language. Having aroused protests from the local Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, '"Path to Faith" threatened to incite of international hatred', according to the newspaper, and led 'the official organs to take a close interest in Slovo.'

Explaining that she had personally financed Bayanov's programmes since Slovo 's status as non-religious did not allow it to do so, Aminova told Keston that Bayanov was summoned for questioning following the article's publication - presumably by the FSB, although no introduction was made by his interrogator. 'It was like 1937 - he was questioned in a harsh voice by a man he couldn't see, sitting in the corner of a darkened room, while bright lights shone in his face. The interrogator said that "they" had ordered the newspaper article and that if Bayanov tried to make an official complaint about it he would not leave that room.'

The Udmurtskaya Pravda article does give some indication of its authors' reasoning for fearing the spread of Protestantism. Noting that Slovo is 'practically financed from the USA,' the article accuses the organisation of 'thrusting alien religious trends on to us.' Such an array of variations of God's Word, it adds, 'hardly facilitates national unity.' In particular, warns the article, since many of Slovo's students are children of prominent local politicians and businessmen who are likely to follow in their footsteps, 'who knows - suddenly they might become prominent politicians with the shadow of Uncle Sam looming over them.'(END)