Monday 31 January 2000

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

The Ministry of Justice of the Chuvash Republic has been seeking to close
down the Church of Christ, a local charismatic church in the regional capital
Cheboksary, citing the harm it alleges the church causes to citizens' health,
unauthorised work with children and failure to reregister by the end of 1999.
However, the church is strongly contesting the case. The first hearing took
place on 21 January and the case is set to return to court before 7 February.

On 22 November 1999, the Ministry of Justice of the Chuvash Republic made
representation to the people's court in the Moscow district of Cheboksary
demanding that the Church of Christ be closed down on the grounds of point 2
of article 14 of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations:
causing harm to the health of citizens, infringements on the personality, rights
and freedoms of the individual and influencing under-eighteens. The fact that
the Church of Christ had not been reregistered by the 31 December 1999
deadline was also cited as grounds for closure (although the case was initiated
before the reregistration deadline had expired).

The Church of Christ, which is led by Pastor VLADIMIR TITOV, is a member
of the `Calvary Community' association. It is also a member of the Russian
Union of Evangelical Christians/Pentecostals.

The community had submitted its documents for reregistration in March 1999,
but was refused for procedural reasons. The community was given an official
warning that it was in breach of the law and was ordered to `take steps to close
the community'.

The lawyer ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre
for Law and Justice, who represented the church in court with his colleague
VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY, told Keston News Service on 24 January that
the first court hearing was inconclusive: `All the circumstances of the case
were fully examined. The judge was unable to make a final judgement,
however, because he did not have any experience of dealing with cases of this
nature. A further hearing is set to take place before 7 February.'

The main accusation against the church centres on its `services for the sick',
which the Chuvash Ministry of Justice considers a form of medical practice
which may harm the health of citizens. Article 57 of the basic law on health
stipulates that all forms of medical practice are to be officially licensed by the
authorities. Members of the Church of Christ maintain that their `healing
services' are similar to the Orthodox custom of offering prayers `for health' and
are not a form of medical practice.

In spring 1998 the Church of Christ issued leaflets inviting people to a special
service for the healing of the sick. On 11 April 1998 a commission made up of
Y.G. MAKSIMOV, deputy minister of health of the Chuvash Republic and
chairman of the commission for the licensing of doctors and pharmacists, and
A.B. KOZLOV, chief psychiatrist at the Ministry of Health, attended one of
these services.

The commission held an enquiry and its conclusions formed the basis for the
current court case. The enquiry concluded that the preacher used `methods
designed to induce a trance-like state using such psychological techniques as:
manipulation of the emotions, displaying excessive amounts of love, attention
and concern for people in order to gain their trust, stimulation of extreme
emotions of guilt and fear and the use of song, prayer, and repetition of the
same phrases over and over again to achieve the suspension of rational thought
and induce a state of mass hypnosis.'

The commission argued that such `psychological manipulation' could lead to
the loss of individual autonomy and control over one's own life and material
well being, leading to a state of dependency and infantilism, to the loss of
normal social ties and causing a deterioration in the psychological health of the
individual, who may experience anxiety, paranoia, disorientation and the
breakdown of the personality.

The commission concluded: `This organisation displays all the features of a
destructive cult, whose activity is aimed at the destruction of the personality,
the weakening of social relationships and the undermining of cultural and
spiritual values.'

The Church of Christ is also being brought to account for failing to heed an
order issued by the Ministry of Health in 1996 banning the church from using
religious healing methods in medical establishments. Members of the church
stress that they held their `services for the sick' not in any medical
establishment, but in a rented hall.

The charge of influencing minors is based on the fact that Pastor Titov showed
a video of a film called `Superbook', shown on Russian television in 1991, to
children in the hostel where he lives. According to Pchelintsev, `the Ministry of
Justice saw this as influencing minors, even though Pastor Titov states that he
always asked the children who came to watch the film whether they had their
parents' permission to do so.'

Pchelintsev told Keston that `no convincing evidence of any harm caused to
citizens was presented to the court'. He believed the trial had been instigated by
VALERI VAZYUKOV, the official responsible for the registration of
religious and social organisations in the Ministry of Justice of the Chuvash
Republic, in order to `demonstrate his effectiveness'.

Pastor Titov maintains that his community is being persecuted on religious
grounds: `Even though we are only a small community, we also work in
schools and colleges - the teachers invited us into their schools to talk to the
students about Christmas. No objections have been made about our work in
schools, only about our healing services.' Asked whether the community was
planning to make any changes in the light of the case against it, Pastor Titov
replied: `We are planning to change our name - we have been told that there is
a sect which has the same name, but we had not realised this in time. We are
going to change our name and apply for reregistration under this name.'

In a telephone interview on 27 January, Vazyukov told Keston from Chuvashia
that the church is guilty of `a blatant infringement of the existing legislation, as
well as not submitting documentation for reregistration before the deadline, in
accordance with the Federal Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious
Associations'. According to Vazyukov, the church did submit its documents for
reregistration in March 1999, but was refused on the grounds that the
documents did not meet procedural requirements. Asked by Keston whether the
authorities were aware at that time that the church was being accused of
breaking the law, Vazyukov replied that the authorities were primarily
interested in `checking whether the documents corresponded with the legal
requirements, and subsequently investigated whether article 14 of the law was
being contravened.'

Asked whether he was aware of the introduction of an extended deadline for
the reregistration of religious organisations, Vazyukov replied that he had
heard that an extension was being discussed but: `The law states that reregistration
should take place no later than 31 December 1999. Plans to extend the deadline
have not yet been approved, and we cannot be governed by them.'

In Ryakhovsky's opinion, the only serious ground for closing the Church of
Christ in Chuvashia is the fact that it missed the reregistration deadline. (END)

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(c) Keston Institute 2000