RUSSIA: 'American Neo-Pentecostal Sect' Barred From Building in Moscow.

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 7 December 2001

Despite gaining the approval of all the necessary agencies, a Pentecostal church in the Russian capital is being forced to renounce the land it was allocated five years ago on which it had planned to build a new church centre because of the unwillingness of the "district community" to be home to a "neo-Pentecostal movement, brought from the US". A member of the Emmanuel Church told Keston News Service that if it loses the plot of land allocated by the prefecture of the Western Okrug (district) of Moscow, it faces losing the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have already been invested in the project.

At the end of November the church received an official letter from the Moscow Land Committee stating that the city government had ordered another site to be found for the church. "We refuse to accept another plot of land," the administrator of the Emmanuel mission Bakur Azaryan told Keston on 1 December. "We cannot tell our parishioners who have contributed to the church building project that their money has simply vanished." The church is now considering whether to appeal to a court of arbitration.

The 800-strong Emmanuel Church (a member of the Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) in Russia, led by Bishop Vladimir Murza) was registered in Moscow in 1992 and re-registered in 1998. The church, which currently rents the House of Culture of the Moscow Aviation Institute for services, applied for permission to build the centre, which would also serve as a children's home, a charitable centre and a Sunday school. In 1996 the prefecture of the Western Okrug allocated the land next to a park described by the Moscow Planning office as "a neglected area, with an absence of green vegetation, which is alongside a gully, a marsh and a wasteland that is used as a dump". Keston visited the site, which remains neglected today. According to the agreement, the Pentecostals were to transform the site into a well-appointed park, with a pond and tree-lined paths.

Azaryan told Keston that when the church drew up its plan and agreed it with the numerous agencies, it also needed approval from the local self- government agency - the district assembly - whose job is to protect public interests when new buildings are put up in developed areas. No church representatives were invited to the district advisers' meeting and the community only learnt some time later that the district assembly had decided on 14 November 2000 to reject the plan.

The reasons for the refusal, as set out in the district newspaper "Our Vernadsky Prospect", were that the construction work would be undertaken in a well-appointed park (not the "neglected area" of the official draft plan) and that "alluring" proposals by representatives of the Emmanuel church were misleading residents as to their true intentions. According to Olga Motorina, author of the article "Grounds for Concern", unlike Orthodox churches, which had been "built using national resources", here "an investment of foreign capital would take place, because 'the Christian Evangelical Church Emmanuel was a Russian mission of a neo-Pentecostal movement brought here from the US via Sweden".

The district office evidently took this information from a letter sent on 6 March 2001 to the head of the Board of Vernadsky Prospect V. Starkova from the department for the study of the behaviour of sects at the Orthodox Theological Institute of St Tikhon, signed by department deputy head Mikhail Plotnikov. "The teaching and practice of the 'Emmanuel Church' provoke a number of misgivings," Plotnikov writes. "It is characteristic for them to use hypnotic techniques, practices that induce occult and mystical trances and a system to control the consciousness of their followers, and this represents a danger to mental health". He cites unnamed "Swedish psychiatrists" as declaring that "every fourth neo-Pentecostal has attempted suicide", while "many neo- Pentecostal pastors are known throughout the world as religious crooks who lead lives of luxury funded by the exploitation and extortion of their congregation".

Plotnikov also states that "members of the occult-esoteric totalitarian sect International Emmanuel Mission are actively promoting the construction of the prayer house (Azaryan told Keston that this letter was the first they had heard about this), "the sect's leader is the former criminal racketeer Nikolai Globin, who has declared himself to be 'Christ the Emmanuel', while the majority of members of the sect are connected with the criminal world". Further, Plotnikov claims, this sect has "deluded the advisers to the district assembly" and that "it is possible that law enforcement agencies might have to intervene".

According to Azaryan, several advisers told church representatives that they did not know a decision had been taken. Hoping to retrieve the situation somehow, the church distributed to local residents a booklet giving information about the church and its proposed activity, and also a sketch of the planned complex. 6,391 of the 10,000 residents canvassed by the church said they did not oppose the construction of the building. Neither the district board nor the city government, however, admitted these statistics.

In a 28 May letter to Bishop Murza, the deputy head of the city government, Valery Shantsev, said the decision had been taken to change the plot of land because it "was impossible not to take into account the opinions of members of the public who were opposed to the construction work". The church continues to hope for a resolution to the dispute and has written to the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Azaryan, officially the original plot of land has not been taken from them, and they do not intend voluntarily to renounce it and look at other options. It was possible, he said, that they would appeal to a court of arbitration for protection of their rights.

The deputy head of the committee for relations with religious organisations at the city government, Konstantin Blazhenov, said the dispute over the Emmanuel Church was due to the excessive democratisation of town planning legislation. "It is impossible to influence a decision of the district assembly, and you will always find a section of the population which will oppose any construction work," he told Keston on 30 November. Blazhenov also believes that in the current situation only Orthodox churches will succeed in being built. As far as the question of the Emmanuel church is concerned, he maintains that if the construction project is impossible there, then everything possible should be done to compensate the church for its expenditure. Asked by Keston whether this was likely, he said that it was unlikely. (END)