YEKATERINBURG PROTESTANTS CLAIM HARASSMENT FROM ORTHODOX AND NEOFASCISTS

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

New Life (Novaya Zhizn) Church in Yekaterinburg is currently being investigated by a local public prosecutor at the request of the deputy of Sverdlovsk Region Legislative Assembly T. TOKAREVA, according to the church's pastor, VIKTOR SUDAKOV. 'Her request is "to examine the activity of New Life sect, where hypnosis and other prohibited methodics are used... [as] the local administration undertakes nothing to cancel this dangerous group".'

The adviser on religious affairs to Yekaterinburg's mayor, TATYANA TAGIYEVA, told Keston on 20 September that her office had been asked to consider the validity of Tokareva's allegations, in particular whether New Life's activities were a threat to the health of citizens, and whether the church should be allowed to use Lavrov House of Culture for its services. She did not know if the investigation had come to a close, but did not believe that there would be any categorical conclusions in any case: 'The public prosecutor is not a specialist in this area [religious affairs] and so cannot come out with any radical conclusions.' In her view, Deputy Tokareva was following the current fashion for nationalism, and thought that by requesting an investigation into New Life's activities she would be benefiting Russia: 'She thinks that if she helps the Russian Orthodox Church she will help Russia.'

This is not the first occasion that New Life Church has met with local opposition. Pastor Sudakov reported that on Sunday 4 July approximately twenty uniformed Russian National Unity (RNU) members blocked the entrance to Lavrov House of Culture. According to Sudakov, members of the congregation had no choice but to summon the police, and seven of the demonstrators were subsequently fined for an administrative offence at a local police station. Two of the church's ministers present as the police officers took statements reportedly then heard one of the demonstrators declare that a local Orthodox priest, FR VLADIMIR of the Church of St Panteleimon, had sent them to picket the New Life meeting.

When Keston spoke to Fr Vladimir on 29 July, however, he denied that this was the case:'That is not true at all.' When asked what his attitude was towards RNU, he replied that he was not a member of the party. When asked how he regarded New Life Church, he replied, 'as an ordinary sect.'

On 24 July Pastor Sudakov told Keston that disruption of church worship took place on Sunday 11 July, when New Life's congregation had to evacuate the House of Culture five minutes before the sermon 'because of a telephone call to the police saying that the facility had been mined.' This proved to be a false alarm - in Sudakov's view, 'a provocation' which could only have been inspired by the RNU, as at the police station the week before their members had additionally declared that the 11 July service 'should not take place at all.' On 18 July, said Sudakov, the leader of the local RNU dressed in plain clothes demonstrated outside the House of Culture alongside Orthodox holding placards bearing slogans such as: 'Beware! The sect is meeting here', 'Sectarians - get out of Yekaterinburg!' and 'Holy Russia! Keep the Orthodox faith'.

According to Sudakov, the demonstrators had 'illegally' picketed New Life's services for the past eight months. A group of young Orthodox distributed leaflets outside the House of Culture describing the church as a 'dangerous organisation.' A copy of one such leaflet received by Keston states: 'Be careful if so-called church "New Life" invites you to one of its meetings. This is actually a sect which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christian Church of the Bible.' It goes on to accuse the church of exerting psychological pressure on its members, as a result of which 'a person loses his capacity for logical thought and his capability to evaluate his present state.' In Sudakov's view such allegations were an attempt 'to discredit all [who are of the] Protestant faith in our city and region.'

Pastor Sudakov told Keston that attacks on New Life Church frequently appeared in the local secular and religious press. One example is an anonymous article written by 'a person who has been among many sects' in 'The Orthodox Newspaper' ('Pravoslavnaya Gazeta'), which states: 'All sects limit your freedom and understanding of the Bible. As soon as you fall into a sect... you will not be able to express your opinion. If a person wants to leave a sect, he is seldom able to do so.' The author then includes New Life Church in a list of the ten principal 'sects' in Yekaterinburg (the others being Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Pentecostals, Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, 'Jesus Christ' Church, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Scientologists). According to Tatyana Tagiyeva, the newspaper's editor, FR DMITRI BAIBAKOV, has written that the struggle against sects should be the main task of Orthodox believers.

Pastor Sudakov's e-mail reports of the ongoing protests against New Life Church have been reproduced by news services such as Human Rights Without Frontiers and Blagovestinfo; they have also met with extreme concern from missionaries such as ALFRED MCCROSKEY of Bibles for Russia, Inc., who forwards one with the comment: 'Our experience tells us that most churches in the old former Soviet Union have little if any opposition. But when they do, it is usually very severe. Such seems to be the case at Yekaterinburg.'

So far, however, New Life Church has continued to meet for worship. Pastor Sudakov himself admitted to Keston that the Yekaterinburg city authorities had not sought to prevent the church from conducting services, a position confirmed by VIKTOR SMIRNOV, plenipotentiary for religious organisations of Sverdlovsk oblast, when he spoke to Keston on 27 July. Smirnov maintained that he had good personal relations with the leaders of New Life Church: 'I have represented their interests in the press and through the public procuracy.' In his view Yekaterinburg was tolerant towards different religious organisations; as plenipotentiary for religious affairs, he said, he had seen many groups, including 'Scientologists and other churches, Methodists', grow around him: 'There may be a lack of understanding in other areas but not in this town.'

Plenipotentiary Smirnov confirmed that there was ongoing picketing by Orthodox of New Life's meetings, 'but it is not against the law to picket a church if you do not cause actual physical harm - you can stand with placards and express your opinion.' In his view the Orthodox demonstrators were 'ordinary parishioners, not priests or the bishop.' Smirnov confirmed that RNU members had blocked the entrance to the House of Culture on 4 July; in his view their action was 'not connected with anyone else'. He argued that there was little the authorities could do in response to such events - 'RNU is also a social organisation, it has not been banned'.

According to Tatyana Tagiyeva, however, Plenipotentiary Smirnov was actually a 'pre-perestroika person' who had worked closely with recently-retired Bishop Nikon of Yekaterinburg and was 'used to supporting the Russian Orthodox Church and suppressing newer Christian Churches.' She maintained that, although the demonstrators outside Lavrov House of Culture had not been banned, neither had they been given the necessary official permission: 'But Smirnov does not complain so the demonstrators know they're safe.' In her view, the demonstrations amounted to incitement of religious hatred (illegal under the 1997 law on religion) 'but the authorities don't react.' She was especially concerned that, although New Life Church had been registered, the public prosecutor's request to her office described them as 'a sect': 'People here are completely unschooled in the concept of freedom of conscience.'

Although she did not think that the church would be banned - 'that is not possible in Yekaterinburg just now', Tagiyeva believed that the situation was having a negative impact on the church - 'They are having a very tough time' - and could worsen. Both Tagiyeva and Sudakov were agreed on the main reason for the intense opposition to New Life Church: with 1400 members in Yekaterinburg city congregation alone, it is the largest and fastest-growing Protestant congregation in the region.(END)