UKRAINE: Authorities Halt 'Jews for Jesus' Mission.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 6 August 2002

The regional authorities in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk have banned a street evangelism campaign organised by the mission organisation Jews for Jesus and a local Protestant church, claiming that the campaign had failed to get the necessary prior approval. "Public religious events can only be held by religious organisations registered locally and need approval from the local authorities ten days in advance," the local official of the government's Council for Religious Affairs, Andrey Severin, told Keston News Service from Dnepropetrovsk on 6 August. "They had failed to do this. Even a local Orthodox parish conducting a krestny khod [procession] needs to write in asking for permission."

Severin referred to a decision on holding "mass events" in Dnepropetrovsk, issued by the local council on 11 February 2000. He claimed he had explained this in advance to Pastor Vyacheslav Ten of the city's Jerusalem Church, which had helped organise the campaign. Jews for Jesus representatives have denied this to Keston, saying Pastor Ten had asked Severin whether such permission was necessary and had been told it was not.

"We went ahead on this basis," Leonid Vasserman, leader of the Odessa branch of Jews for Jesus told Keston on 5 August. Pastor Ten told Keston that Severin had outlined that permission was needed for "mass events", but said he had not regarded a campaign where Jews for Jesus representatives spoke individually to passers-by on the streets and handed out literature as a "mass event". "The first I knew of the February 2000 city decision was when city officials showed it to me on 22 July," Pastor Ten told Keston from Dnepropetrovsk on 6 August. "I can't say whether the decree is in accord with the Ukrainian Constitution or not. But like it or not, we must abide by it - to show that we listen."

Pastor Ten and Jews for Jesus halted the public campaign on 22 July, although they continued to follow up those who had responded positively to their approaches. "We consulted and considered that if we continued, it would only bring harm to the church," Vasserman told Keston.

Vasserman insists the campaign was lawful. "Under the law, as the Jerusalem church is registered in Dnepropetrovsk, we had the right to conduct such religious activity on the street." His complaints were echoed by Mikhail Vashengolts, one of the leaders of the campaign. "We are disheartened that the local authorities are not only denying our right to present the gospel to Jewish people in this manner, but have closed their eyes to the anti-missionary attacks we've endured." The campaign, which began on 4 July, consisted of giving out leaflets on the street and talking to people, Vasserman reported. However, two days after it began a counter-campaign organised by the Jewish organisation Magen was launched. "Magen and people from various Jewish schools started shadowing us, gave out leaflets accusing us of being a 'sect' and even started to shout at our people," Vasserman claimed. "They then resorted to touching and even hitting our representatives. One lady was injured on the hand with a burning cigarette."

However, Jewish representatives - among them the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) - allege that it was Jews for Jesus evangelists who attacked those trying to halt the evangelistic campaign. "According to UCSJ's monitor [in Dnepropetrovsk], in some cases the missionaries reacted violently and beat Yeshiva students who were shadowing them," the UCSJ reported on 3 August. Vasserman adamantly denied this. "We didn't beat anyone or even touch anyone."

At the same time, the regional administration reportedly banned a local College of Culture from showing a Jews for Jesus film, "Survivors' Stories", which carries accounts of Jewish Holocaust survivors who converted to Christianity. According to Vasserman, the College director, Yevgeny Taran, had already signed an agreement with Jews for Jesus to show the film and the College had already been paid, but the director contacted Jews for Jesus on 12 July to say he was revoking the contract. "The director was very sorry to tell us about his decision," Vasserman declared. "He brought us our money back. He said he was called from the regional administration office and warned that if he did not refuse to let us use their hall he would be dismissed from his job." Jews for Jesus had to find an alternative venue to host the film.

Vasserman reported that the police then started detaining mission members. Mira Gracheva, who is from Moscow, and campaign organiser Valery Bolotov were detained on 16 July. "When the police saw they were staying at the Jerusalem church, they apologised and let them go," Vasserman declared. But detentions continued. Bolotov was again held the following day. Six further participants were detained briefly. "The police gave verbal orders that they should stop the street evangelism, as President Leonid Kuchma was arriving in town and they didn't want any conflict. But none of them were charged."

On 22 July Pastor Ten and Bolotov were summoned to the regional administration, where Sergey Kvitka of the department for internal policy showed him the February 2000 decision and instructed them verbally to halt the campaign. "Kvitka talked one-to-one with Pastor Ten and threatened him," Vasserman declared. "Kvitka said that the evangelisation by Jews for Jesus did not correspond to the requirement of the regional administration's decision on permitted places for holding public meetings, and for that reason the activity of Jews for Jesus in the streets must be stopped." Pastor Ten told Keston he had signed a document to say he had been acquainted with the text of the February 2000 decision.

Although the Jews for Jesus campaign encountered high-profile opposition from the Jewish community - Dnepropetrovsk Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky condemned the campaign on local television and it even gained national television coverage - Severin told Keston that no Jewish leaders had personally visited him to press for the authorities to halt the campaign.

Keston tried to reach Kvitka by telephone on 6 August, but his office said he was on holiday for another week. His deputy, Sergei Zabrodin, was not answering his telephone. (END)