RUSSIA: Court Agrees That Baptist Church Breaks Up Families.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 15 March 2002

Three Baptists from the Talitsa district of Sverdlovsk region (approximately 1,600 kilometres or 1,000 miles east of Moscow) this week failed to win damages against a local newspaper for publishing negative articles about their community. On 12 March a lawyer to the Baptists told Keston News Service that anonymous youths had begun warning the pupils of one of the plaintiffs that their schoolteacher belonged to a sect, and that she had developed a heart condition as a result.

On 20 July last year "Vostochnaya Provintsiya" newspaper ran an article about the Talitsa-based "Spiritual Renewal" community, a religious group under the auspices of Russia's major Baptist Union. After having interviewed a person who lost a loved one to "Spiritual Renewal", wrote journalist Irina Glebova under a pseudonym, she understood that this was "not a church, but a sect." According to the article, "mothers lose their children there, families break up: the most important thing to them is demented faith."

In "Religious Fanaticism", an article published by the same newspaper on 10 August 2001, Glebova maintains that she uses the term "sect" not in a negative sense, but to indicate sections of believers who reject dominant or more widespread religious doctrine. In order to illustrate how members of "sects" become fanatics who pay no attention to their families, however, she cites information given to her by the relatives of two "Spiritual Renewal" parishioners. One woman, claims Glebova, lost her husband to the Baptist community: "He spoke only about faith, about his salvation, repeating [to his wife] that if she did not come to God, then she would burn in hell for ever after her death - surely this is fanaticism?" The daughter of another woman, she maintains, "began to live according to the strict rules of the Baptists, socialising exclusively with her 'brothers' and 'sisters'."

Cited in the second article as denying that any such cases had occurred in her church, schoolteacher and "Spiritual Renewal" parishioner Zoya Reshetnikova, the community's pastor, Sergei Zonov, and a third parishioner subsequently attempted to defend their reputation in Talitsa District Court. The two "Vostochnaya Provintsiya" articles had offended their feelings as believers, they argued, since their community was falsely dubbed a "sect" that was a danger to society.

Having heard the witness statements of the two interviewees in Glebova's second article, however, Talitsa District Court ruled on 12 February that "the information disputed by the plaintiffs corresponds with reality," so that there was no foundation for the Baptists' complaints. Although not cited by the court in its ruling, an expert statement from a philosophy lecturer at Tyumen State University probably refers to Reshetnikova in warning that "there is a great danger that a member of the sect of Evangelical Christian [Baptists] - a teacher in the village of Troitsky - is propagandising [her] convictions by making either deliberate or unconscious use of [her] authority."

Although the Baptists tried to appeal against the 12 February verdict in Sverdlovsk Regional Court, lawyer to "Spiritual Renewal" Maksim Likhanov this week informed Keston that on 12 March the regional court upheld the district court ruling. In a statement also sent to Keston by Likhanov, the "Spiritual Renewal" community point out that, although the court case only concerned physical individuals and a secular newspaper, "there was the most active participation by the missionary department of the local diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church." The community additionally expresses concern that the windows and lock of their prayer house have been broken since the district court proceedings.

During the early hearings of the Talitsa district court case last November, a local Orthodox newspaper, "Pravoslavnaya Gazeta", accused Zoya Reshetnikova of conducting missionary activity while teaching at Talitsa Secondary School No. 2. Continuing to report the case, the news section of the official website of the Yekaterinburg Russian Orthodox diocese (www.propovednik.ru) on 14 February confirmed that the head of the diocesan missionary and catechism department, Fr Vladimir Zaitsev, "actively participated in the court hearings." In addition to "Vostochnaya Provintsiya" newspaper, the site also explained, local Orthodox priest Fr Igor Balabanov had "had to stand as defendant" in the case since the Baptists' accusations partially related to him, although this is not substantiated by the official court documentation.

The full addresses of Baptist prayer houses in Yekaterinburg are listed under "pseudo-evangelical sect" within the "sects" section of the same website. (END)