RUSSIA: Independent Baptist Church Still Beleaguered.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 7 August 2002

The independent Baptist church in the Pacific port of Vanino is still without re-registration, its founder, missionary Dan Pollard, told Keston News Service from the United States on 19 July. Pollard himself has still not been allowed entry to the Russian Federation having been denied a visa repeatedly since April 1999 - despite several local court decisions in his favour.

The latest court hearing to consider re-registration of the church, due to have been held on 15 July, was postponed, Pollard reported. "It is clear that the officials in Khabarovsk are breaking Russian law by refusing to re-register our church. The only way they can stop us is to continue to delay."

First registered in1996, the church continues to dispute the 25 October 2000 decision by Khabarovsk krai's department of justice not to grant it re-registration under Russia's 1997 law on religion (see KNS 21 February 2001). On 4 February 2002 Khabarovsk central court rejected the church's appeal, ruling that, in accordance with Article 288, Part 3 and Article 671 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation, a legal personality may not use living accommodation not intended for any other purpose, while the building cited by the church as its legal address "is living accommodation registered under the name of US citizen Dan Pollard". In addition, stated the court, re-registration of religious organisations could legally take place no later than 31 December 2000, "and consequently, the plaintiff's request for the [re-registration] period to be reinstated cannot be granted".

On 30 April 2002 Khabarovsk krai regional court rejected the church's appeal against the local court's ruling.

Liquidation proceedings, on the other hand, have not yet begun, and here the Russian Constitutional Court's 7 February 2002 ruling relating to the 1997 law on religion may have implications for the Vanino Baptists. It stated that liquidation of a religious organisation is permissible only if the organisation "is properly proven to have ceased its activities or to be conducting activity in violation of its obligations as a legal personality according to the Russian Constitution". In response to Keston's query, Vanino Baptist Church member Inna Vaulina wrote on 30 July that neither her church nor the local judge in possession of the court order to liquidate it were aware of this decision by the Constitutional Court. In a conversation the previous day, said Vaulina, the judge had promised her that she would not set a date for the court hearing to liquidate the church without first having become acquainted with the Constitutional Court's decision.

While the local Khabarovsk courts appear to be somewhat more favourably disposed towards Pollard himself, he has still to be permitted to return to Vanino.

On 15 May, a Khabarovsk city court ruled invalid a 2 April 1999 decision by Khabarovsk krai's department of internal affairs not to admit Pollard to the Russian Federation until March 2004. According to another Vanino Baptist church member, Irina Sarapina, the department of internal affairs lodged an appeal against this ruling, which was due to be heard on 23 July. Noting the difficulty in getting Pollard returned to Russia, she commented that the church could have invited a native Russian to be pastor in his place, but that "it was with the deportation of foreign missionaries that repression against believers in the Soviet Union began".

On 26 July Pollard wrote to Keston that the 23 July hearing had gone in his favour: "This is the third time in a row that I have won. I hope that it is over, but don't know - it was appealed before." He also commented to Keston that both he and his church had written to Russian President Vladimir Putin six months ago "as he suggested that those being wrongly treated and kicked out of Russia should do".

Asked when the Russian president had made such a statement, Pollard referred Keston to an interview given by Putin on National Public Radio on 15 November 2001 during his visit to the United States. A Texan listener, Max Wilson, voiced his concern about reports of persecution and discrimination against Western Protestant ministries and ministers in Russia: "My wife and I support several village churches in Siberia, as well as an orphanage and a ministry to street children. We often travel to Russia to visit the people involved in those ministries. My question is - are we really welcome?"

In response, Putin said that he was confident that there were "no problems about the interaction of any confessions, [or] representatives of any confessions with the official authorities." Noting, however, that "in some parts of the world the Russian Orthodox Church is running into problems," he maintained that his job was "to create an environment where it will be possible to profess religions freely, and to engage in religious beliefs freely for all and any people, irrespective of their congregation." Regarding problems of the type cited by Wilson, said Putin, "it would be appropriate if he were to send a letter with a description of those problems to my office, and I promise hereby that we will pay the closest attention to such a letter."

Pollard told Keston that he and his church had had "no response whatsoever to date" from Putin's office. (END)