SPECIAL REPORT - RUSSIA: Mixed Fortunes for Mari-El's Protestants.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 16 July 2002

While the evangelical Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre managed to purchase the former cinema where it now meets in 1995 and successfully re-registered in 1997, "we don't feel freedom of conscience here," the church's pastor, Gennadi Sharyov, told Keston News Service on 2 June in the capital of the Mari-El republic, approximately 500 miles or 800 kilometres east of Moscow.

Although the Mari-El authorities "couldn't find a way of taking our building away from us," he said, they prevented the church from holding public evangelisation events in 2001. According to Sharyov, the church is legally obliged merely to give advance notice to the authorities regarding such events, rather than request permission to hold them.

Last April the church wrote to the head of Ioshkar-Ola's municipal administration, Vladimir Tarkov, giving notice of its plans to hold a Christian festival between 17 June and 3 July in co-operation with four other Protestant churches. "We are not asking for the allocation of any funds," wrote Sharyov, "but only for the observance of the equality of our rights before the law." Explaining to Tarkov that the festival would include seminars and lectures on subjects such as Christian parenting and overcoming drug addiction, the church requested a suitable site for the 700-man tent where these events would be held.

On 18 June, however, Tarkov's assistant informed Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre that the municipal administration "is not able to permit the pitching of a 700-man tent" during June "due to the staging of traditional mass municipal events," such as City Day, Youth Day and local Mari festivals Peledysh Pairem and Sabantui.

In response to the church's repeat request on 21 May, Tarkov wrote on 14 June that in order to work with the "non-believing residents" of Ioshkar-Ola in the way requested, Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre must be licensed to engage in educational, psychological and medical activity and possess documentation giving it the right to conduct seminars in these fields for adults, children, alcoholics and drug addicts. If such documentation is submitted to the municipal administration at least 20 days prior to the festival, states Tarkov, it may take place - but only on the territory of Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre itself, "in order to avoid open (mass) conflicts with representatives of other confessions and non-believers".

A request made by Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre to hold a separate Christian music festival around the same time as the seminars was refused outright. On 7 May, Ioshkar-Ola municipal administration informed Pastor Sharyov that the three sites he had suggested were not available "since they are being used by legal entities". A further letter from the same department on 22 June clarifies that the first option, an area including a public park, is not possible because a cafe will be built there, the second, waste ground at the intersection of two roads, because a market is being built there, and the third, an area next to the River Kokshaga, "because it is in the city's green belt - within a month the flora of the park will be completely ruined or even destroyed," while another park is being created opposite the area requested "and work is going on".

Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre's queries of 5 and 29 June to Mari-El's public prosecutor's office regarding these refusals met with the same response - that it was in the competency of the city administration to take such decisions, but that they could be challenged in court.

In Pastor Sharyov's view, the obstructions faced by Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre in particular are due to both his own background and that of the church. Sharyov was an army officer for 17 years, he told Keston, while his church was founded by US missionaries and maintains foreign contacts. "I was accused of passing on state secrets and sacked without a pension in 1997," he said. Sharyov also pointed to opposition from the local Orthodox: "They call us a totalitarian sect, say the church should be liquidated and generally sow religious hatred."

Interviewed by Keston on 31 May, Bishop Ioan (Timofeyev) of Ioshkar-Ola and Mari-El spoke of what he regarded as the "danger" posed by "sectarians": "We tried to close them down and prevent the re-registration of some - we found out that many had suffered in the [Ioshkar-Ola] Christian Centre and the Jehovah's Witnesses - but whenever parents made a case to the public prosecutor to ban them and provided evidence, they would later ask for it back because their children threatened that they would never see them again if they pursued it."

Pastor Sharyov is not alone in complaining of obstruction initiated by the local Orthodox. On 1 June Pastor Timothy Gerega told Keston that his Reconciliation Baptist Church had twice had access to the Novotroitsky Juvenile Delinquent Colony in the settlement of Svetly curtailed at the request of Bishop Ioan, who, he said, also summoned local directors of Palaces of Culture in Ioshkar-Ola and told them not to rent out their premises to the church. Thanks to some support from within the municipal administration, however, Pastor Gerega said that his church had been able to start building their own church in autumn 2000: "They said, 'Put down foundations fast so the Orthodox can't do anything.'"

Finnish Pastor Juho Valiaho and his Estonian wife Anu of Ioshkar-Ola Mari-Russian Lutheran Parish told Keston on 2 June that their "salvation" was that they had managed to build their own church in 1996-7. Although the local Orthodox "don't like us," they said, they had not encountered any obstruction to their activities, which include charitable work in hospitals and children's homes. Bishop Ioan, however, singled out Finnish Lutherans as examples of Protestant missionaries whom he opposed when Keston spoke to him on 31 May: "They invite students to learn Finnish in Finland, but that is just a good excuse. It is actually conversion to Lutheranism of people who are already baptised."

Mari-El's local official in charge of religious affairs, Valentina Kutasova, insisted to Keston on 31 May that, according to Russia's 1997 religion law, "each person chooses their own faith and has the right to preach if it isn't against the law." When Keston asked if this included street evangelism or house-to-house calls, she maintained that it did. "If a person lets a preacher into their flat, then it is their own choice, not a violation of the law." Asked if she thought that there was a problem posed by sectarians in Mari-El, Kutasova commented that it was "not so much a legal problem as one of how parents bring up their children". (END)