Friday 19 February


by Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

On 15 February the Word of Life church in Magadan lodged a complaint with the procuracy of the region about the actions of the tax police and the police (`militsiya') against the church. In December and January officials of the tax service conducted searches during which all the church's financial documentation was removed; it has still not been returned. The police threatened church members on 5 February during a night-time search conducted under the pretext of a hunt for drug traders. The church's night-watchman was arrested during this raid and held for twelve hours in prison, the church's pastor NIKOLAI VOSKOBOINIKOV told Keston News Service.

Word of Life, a Pentecostal church, has existed in Magadan since 1981, although the church did not gain its first registration until 1989. Voskoboinikov reports that there are now some 800 people in the church in Magadan itself, with more in branches across the Magadan region.

As for the reported physical maltreatment of members of the church, the Moscow-based lawyer and human rights activist VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY declared that he had no information about it. He said that apart from the crude nature of the search the members of the church had not complained about anything. `I do not believe that the members of the Word of Life church are interested in leaving the country,' Ryakhovsky declared. `If the court rules in March against the Word of Life church there is a possibility that some of the Pentecostals will go to America, but they do not want to emigrate.'

Pastor Voskoboinikov confirmed to Keston that the police beat no-one and that there were only psychological insults during the search and constant threats of physical violence on the part of nationalist parties. In January the church's records with information on individual members were removed, and these have still not been returned. Voskoboinikov believes that it is on the basis of these records that the police have been coming to the homes of church members, though not one church member has yet allowed the police into his home.

In the wake of these events, 326 members of the church officially lodged an appeal with the United States embassy in Moscow on 15 January, asking for political asylum on the grounds of religious persecution. Voskoboinikov is due to discuss the question of political asylum with the US consul in Vladivostok, who is expected to visit Magadan. `If there is the possibility of leaving for the US, there will in fact be many more wishing to go than the number who have put in an application now,' Voskoboinikov declared.

Keston tried to seek the views of the Magadan city procuracy about the situation of the Word of Life church. Without giving his name, an official told Keston that the case was being handled by the procuracy of Magadan region, and that the city procuracy was not involved, and suggested that enquiries should be addressed to the regional procuracy. An official who answered the telephone on the number of the Magadan regional procurator, who did not identify himself, told Keston that he would not discuss on the telephone the question of the Word of Life church and the actions of the procuracy against the Pentecostals, without explaining the reasons for his refusal.

The deputy governor of Magadan region, ANTONINA LUKINA, assured Keston that the criminal case launched against the Pentecostals was not connected with the law on freedom of conscience or with the confession of religious convictions. She said that searches were not carried out for no reason. She said that during the raid by the tax police industrial gold was found which may not be owned by private individuals, as the monopoly on the acquisition and working of gold belongs to the state and industrial gold is handed over to the state immediately it has been mined. Although the tax police found only 15 grams of industrial gold in the Word of Life church's main building, Lukina said this was enough to launch a criminal case and such a case was immediately launched. She believed that the situation of the Pentecostals was aggravated by the fact that it was not the tax police officials who fished the packet containing the gold out of the safe but Pastor Voskoboinikov's secretary. She reported that the tax police had conducted check-ups in branches of the church located in gold-mining areas, but that they had found nothing there so far.

Lukina said that the regional administration had been puzzled by the Pentecostals' appeal for political asylum in the United States. `This surprised the authorities.' She claimed the Pentecostals had done this deliberately after the criminal case over the industrial gold had been launched against them. The criminal case had been launched on 17 December 1998 while the Word of Life church had brought a suit against the directorate of justice on 30 December.

Pastor Voskoboinikov assured Keston that Lukina was mistaken, at least over the quantity of gold, which was in fact 13 grams.

Lukina told Keston that the directorate of justice suspended the registration of the Pentecostal church because of the civil case launched by the procuracy on the use of hypnosis in the Word of Life church and the use of citizens' personal means by the church. Lukina said that as soon as the case was concluded the Word of Life church would be registered.

Lukina stressed that there were no problems with other rapidly growing denominations in the region, such as the Mormons, the Adventists or the New Apostolic Church.

The chair of the commission for religion attached to the administration of Magadan region, ALEKSANDRA POSPELOVA, who studies the religious situation in the region as a scholar, told Keston how she viewed developments. She said it was in summer 1998 that the procuracy first decided to apply the law on religions to the Pentecostals. Until then the Pentecostals had encountered no problems with the authorities. In Pospelova's estimation they are the biggest denomination in Magadan after the Orthodox Church. But relatives of members of the Word of Life church sent complaints to the procuracy about the destruction of families and psychological pressure on believers. On 10 June 1998 the procuracy launched a case against the church under point 3 of article 14 of the 1997 law on freedom of conscience on the causing of harm to believers. The regional procuracy decided to conduct these legal proceedings with its own means and did not prepare the case well enough. In Pospelova's words at a hearing on 26 August the lawyer Ryakhovsky from the Christian Legal Centre `immediately destroyed the procuracy's entire case' and the court was adjourned on the grounds of inadequate proof until March 1999. On 28 August the church lodged the registration documents with the directorate of justice. The directorate has not issued a refusal, but has suspended the church's registration until consideration of the case brought by the procuracy for the very reason that the suit is based on the federal law on freedom of conscience. On 16 December the tax police conducted a planned check on religious organisations in Magadan, during the course of which the industrial gold (Pospelova says 16 grams) was found in the church office and a criminal case was launched against the Word of Life church. On 25 January - for the first time since August 1998 - Pospelova met Pastor Voskoboinikov in her capacity as chair of the commission for religion, as he wanted to deliver a complaint to the governor about the actions of the tax police. According to Pospelova, Voskoboinikov had until then always addressed his appeals for help and complaints solely to Moscow and not to the regional administration. Nor had Voskoboinikov appealed to the authorities about the police or the threats of physical violence. Pospelova was not in a position even to speculate why the police should intimidate the Pentecostals. She knew of only one case where Voskoboinikov orally asked the policemen to protect the members of his church from the actions of the National Bolsheviks, though this request was refused. This happened because the police sometimes read the law on religions incorrectly and strove to defend only traditional denominations, Pospelova declared. She added that she had spoken personally to the head of the Magadan police about this and that in future they would protect the Pentecostals from the `patriots'.

Pospelova also said that they could not ban the Word of Life church all the same. Even if they banned it, the Pentecostals would go underground and this would be even worse. She added that the church functioned well and had branches in each district of the city, while Pastor Voskoboinikov preached on local television. If the United States granted political asylum, only the pastor and a small group of believers would in fact leave and the church would simply be left without a pastor. At present the church faced no real obstacles in its religious activity, Pospelova maintained.

In an interview with Keston, given at the end of January, Voskoboinikov said that during the tax police raid on 16 December 1998 documents and computers were removed from the church premises. It was immediately after this that the criminal case against his church was launched, the pastor declared. Then that same night searches were conducted in the homes of two pastors and the church's bookkeeper. Voskoboinikov reports that the searches were conducted by officials of the foreign currency department of the tax police on instructions from the procuracy.

The lawyer Ryakhovsky confirmed to Keston on 15 February that 13 grams of illegal gold had been found at the church premises and said that indeed it could have been planted to strengthen the case against the Word of Life church. Legally, this fact could be the basis for launching a criminal case and increasing the pressure on the Pentecostals and the repressive measures used against them. The presence of the gold also served, he said, as the pretext for the searches of the homes of the bookkeeper, the administrator and the pastor, as well as of the branches of the church in the town and the region as a whole. However, the maximum the procuracy could do was to subject the church to a fine for the illegal holding of industrial gold. Even if it were established that this gold belonged to the pastor they could not close the church, said Ryakhovsky. He is convinced that the Word of Life church brought an action against the directorate of justice not because of the criminal case but because the three-month period for bringing complaints after the registration application had expired.

Keston again spoke to Pastor Voskoboinikov on 11 February to gain clarification of the criminal case against the church. He believed that the criminal case had already been launched and that now the tax inspectorate and the procuracy are seeking facts. He said the case had been launched on the basis of the presence of a large sum of money and gold ornaments in the church safe. When Keston brought up the subject of the packet containing the industrial gold found, according to the officials, in the church office, Voskoboinikov confirmed that illegal gold had indeed been found and that a chemical analysis had indeed confirmed that this was industrial gold. `We say that the industrial gold had been surreptitiously planted there by the officials of the tax police as after the procuracy lost the case in August, its representatives said that they would look for other means of struggling against the church,' the pastor concluded. (END)