SPECIAL REPORT - RUSSIA: Evangelicals Resent Enforced Centralisation.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 22 July 2002

Prior to President Vladimir Putin's policy of strengthening the "vertical of power", Russia's 1997 law on religion initiated a similar effect on the country's religious life. Confessions with an established hierarchical structure - first and foremost, Orthodoxy - fitted perfectly the scheme envisaged by the law: multiple local organisations in subordination to a centralised organisation registered on the federal level. Confessions with some historical presence in Russia - and who were thus able to prove the 15 years' existence necessary for re-registration under the new law - were also able to remain independent.

But for the many Protestant congregations founded as a result of the new freedoms in the early 1990s, there was only one way to retain legal status - to join one of the centralised Protestant church unions. The leaderships of these structures understandably welcomed this development. Interviewed by Russian religious affairs newspaper "Religioznoye Obozreniye" last February, the head of one of the country's main Pentecostal unions, Sergei Ryakhovsky, described the formation of the huge Protestant associations (his own contains approximately 1,200 congregations) as a "necessary" step towards building new relations with the structures of a new state.

However, speaking recently to Protestant representatives at provincial level in Tatarstan and Mari-El, two republics of the Russian Federation on the Volga River east of Moscow, Keston News Service found considerable resentment at what one interviewee described as "enforced membership of unions due to a discriminatory law".

A vivid example of the vulnerability of Protestant churches who decide to take the independent route is the Baptist congregation led by Pastor Mikhail Trofimov in Tatarstan's capital Kazan (see KNS 6 June 2002). According to parishioner Nadezhda Borisova, the church broke away from the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in 1993 due to disagreements over doctrine. (The Council of Churches Baptists themselves broke away from the mainstream Baptist Union during the Soviet period and reject registration requirements as unacceptable state interference in their internal affairs.) A religious group without legal personality status according to the 1997 law, Borisova told Keston on 24 May, "our church would register only on the basis of the Gospel, not on the basis of what the state demands". As a consequence, the 180-strong congregation has no centralised religious organisation to provide it with legal aid or to lobby on its behalf in Moscow, and has no redress when, as is now the case, its large prayer house - legally merely the private property of an individual parishioner - is threatened with demolition to make way for a new road.

One of the elders of the charismatic Free Church, which was recently ousted from rented premises in central Kazan (see KNS 6 June 2002), Yulia Borisenkova has grave reservations about the centralising effects of the 1997 law. On 26 May she told Keston that her own church, founded in 1996, is not registered "because our Russian state put us in this situation". Since, under the 1997 law, those wishing to re-register had either to prove 15 years' existence or to become affiliated to a centralised religious organisation, "all the new churches started to join the unions of the older churches - new Baptists went in with the old, new charismatics went in with the Pentecostals". Her church had not wished to follow suit, however. "The leaders of the unions automatically began to declare themselves bishops, and so a hierarchy began. We would have had to go under a bishop, but we don't recognise an episcopate." Borisenkova pointed out that the Free Church broke away from the old-style Pentecostals in the first place over disagreements in doctrine and approach, but in order to join a union it would have had to have termed itself Pentecostal "as a compromise". Even though her congregation understood that this would be "a formality for the sake of politics," she remained wary. "Who knows? Maybe in a few years it won't be."

As a result, said Borisenkova, it was the church's mission, Word of Grace, which registered. "For those things for which we need registration, we present that of the mission." Word of Grace is affiliated with a centralised religious organisation, Charisma, she said, since, as a mission can include different confessions, membership bears no implication for the church's doctrine.

Tatar church planter Takhir Talipov is also "not a supporter of unions". "I am afraid of a pyramid," he told Keston in Kazan on 26 May. "We support the horizontal, not the vertical principle." One church founded by Talipov, Faith and Life, declined when invited to join the mainstream Baptist Union, he said. The 1997 law has nevertheless exerted its centralising effect on Talipov's congregations. Despite being formally registered only in 1992, Faith and Life and two other Baptist churches have managed to form their own centralised religious organisation, the Association of Christian Free Churches, which now includes 15 churches.

In the neighbouring republic of Mari-El, the pastor of Reconciliation Baptist Church, Timofei Gerega, told Keston on 1 June that his church had been totally independent until 1998. However, he reported that in that year it had joined the mainstream Baptist Union "due to the law" - since the church was registered only in 1993, it could not prove 15 years' existence. Although his congregation "basically agreed with" the Baptists' doctrine, said Gerega, the church had not particularly wanted to adopt the term "Baptist" due to its negative connotations in Russia.

The nearby Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre was founded in Mari-El's capital by an American missionary organisation, Global Strategy, and registered in 1993. On 2 June the church's pastor, Gennadi Sharyov, told Keston that the Centre had joined Sergei Ryakhovsky's Pentecostal Union "in order to pass re-registration in 1997 - but we don't call ourselves Pentecostals". The 1997 law obliged all those with less than 15 years' existence to join a union, he explained, "all the young churches joined - it was necessary to have 'spiritual subordination'." As a result, he said, Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre had to alter its charter, or statutes, to comply with those of the union.

One possible reason why the upper echelons of Russian Protestant organisations are unperturbed by the move towards centralisation appears to be the material benefit they accrue from it. Borisenkova told Keston that the Free Church paid 100 US dollars to join Charisma, with a further fee of 10 US dollars per month. While this entitled the church to attend camps, conferences and joint events, she said, "we don't really use that". Pastor Gerega told Keston that his church had not had to pay anything to join the Baptist Union, but he estimated that the fee to join a large Pentecostal union was "probably around 1000 US dollars per church". Asked by Keston if his church had had to pay a lot to join the Pentecostal union, however, Pastor Sharyov replied, "well no, not particularly" - but would not disclose the sum. (END)