Tuesday 28 September
ARE YOSHKAR-OLA'S OFFICIALS THE MARI-ONETTES OF THEIR LOCAL ORTHODOX BISHOP?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Despite being a registered member of PETR KONOVALCHIK's Baptist Union and having all the necessary construction permits for a new prayer house, Reconciliation Baptist Church was informed by mayor of Yoshkar-Ola VENIAMIN KOZLOV on 13 August that building work could not commence, according to a report from church worker BILL SAXTON.

According to Saxton, the planning application for a church situated on the corner of Dimitrova and Transportnaya Streets in Mikroraion (neighbourhood) 5 of the capital of Mari-El, about 500 miles east of Moscow, had been approved by Mayor Kozlov on 25 June 1998 (Decree No 2652). However, this was unexpectedly annulled by Decree No 2416 of 13 August 1999, which explained that the construction project was not in accordance with development plans for the city and went against the wishes of local residents. In a letter asking the mayor to look into the matter, the members of the congregation complain that the planning application has already cost the church 100,000 roubles (approximately 2,500 pounds sterling or 4,000 USA dollars): 'For us this is a large sum of money.'

On 7 September the church´┐Żs pastor TIMOFEI GEREGA confirmed to Keston that there had indeed been some local opposition (according to Bill Saxton 'small demonstrations of about 20 people'): the inhabitants of the area lived in very poor housing, and, in his view, had used the construction of the prayer house to highlight their plight by demanding new living accommodation in its place. Then, he said, approximately 100 Orthodox parishioners had begun to dominate the demonstrations and organise regular pickets: 'Their placards said things like "Don't let the sectarians build here".'

According to a mid-August report from Billl Saxton, 'a wooden fence wa constructed to encircle the property; this is a regulation which must be met before anyone builds here in Russia. One evening after dark one entire side of the wooden fencing was written on by these people: on another afternoon about a hundred people showed up and began tearing down the fencing. The police arrived before it was all taken down, but did not arrest any of those who had demolished sections of the fence.' The report goes on to describe how on the evening of 13 August 'the mob came back and destroyed all of the fencing which had been put up. No police arrived and no one was arrested.' Photographs received by Keston show graffiti on the fence such as 'Death to the Baptists', as well as stages in its destruction.

On 7 September church worker RUSLAN KAPITULA told Keston that the group of locals and Orthodox had tried to prevent the construction by dismantling the fence on three occasions: 'The first time the police just came and drew up a statement. The second time they came and just looked on. The third time they didn't come at all.' Subsequently, he said, the authorities had suggested that the Baptists relocate and had offered them four alternative sites.

According to Saxton, this apparent capitulation to public pressure by the authorities marked a complete change of attitude on their part: 'Over two years they had donated the property, approved all the paperwork step by step - we were within a couple of days of digging the foundations. They bent over backwards to help us.' According to Kapitula the four sites offered were 'not as good as the old one - further from the centre and not as easy to reach by public transport.' When Keston asked Pastor Gerega why the authorities had not ensured that a registered church could carry out its legal building project, he replied: 'In general the officials aren't bad, but they are scared of the people.' According to Gerega, the mayor's assistant had suggested alternative sites partly 'to calm down the people who want housing - they do have very poor living conditions' and partly because if the Baptists went ahead with their building project 'the Orthodox will constantly protest and try to stop it.'

All three representatives of the Baptist congregation with whom Keston spoke said they were convinced that BISHOP IOANN (TIMOFEYEV) was the prime mover behind the attempts to stop the congregation from building. Ruslan Kapitula said that the authorities were well-disposed towards the Baptists: 'They wanted to help. But the Orthodox Church is very strong in this town - Bishop Ioann has close connections with the president of the republic and has said that he will do everything he can so the Baptists don't build here.' When Keston asked Bill Saxton who he thought was behind the demonstrations, he replied 'Definitely the bishop. Bishop Ioann thinks he's being invaded. He is feeling threatened, he sees the city as his own.' Both Saxton and Kapitula told Keston that they had heard from Mayor Kozlov's assistant how the bishop had complained to her that local parishioners had broken the windows of his house: 'They said, "the Baptists are building their church, why don't you do anything to stop them?" She said to them that she could not stop the construction because it was legal.' According to Pastor Gerega, in this meeting the bishop had also demanded that she 'not allow us to build as we are a sect, con people, lure children, inflict psychological damage and so on: He is known for being very fanatical.' In an interview with local newspaper 'Mariiskaya Pravda' on 13 August, Bishop Ioann is quoted as saying that he will do everything he can to prevent the construction of the prayer house.

When Keston spoke to Mayor Kozlov's assistant SVETLANA MIKHAILOVA on 7 September she at first denied that she had met Bishop Ioann or knew anything at all about the situation connected with the construction of the prayer house: 'I didn't meet with him. I'm just the mayor's assistant. I don't know anything, it all happened without my knowledge.' However, she subsequently confirmed that she had met Bishop Ioann: 'He came and told us that his parishioners had come and broken his windows asking why he was allowing the Baptist church to be built.' She denied that the bishop himself was behind the demonstrations: 'He has nothing against the Baptists. People say he is connected with the demonstrators but it is not true.' When Keston referred to the bishop's statement in 'Mariiskaya Pravda', she replied: 'There was no such statement in the newspaper - who told you that? The bishop is educated and very intelligent. He never said any such thing.' When Keston asked about the demolition of the perimeter fence, she at first replied, 'I have never been there, I don't know what happened'. However, when Keston asked whether it was true that the authorities had not interceded while it was being torn down, she replied: 'It is not my problem but that of the police. Anyway, they re-erected it again.'

On 17 September a secretary at the diocesan office asked how to introduce the Keston representative to Bishop Ioann, but returned after several minutes and said that it would not be possible to speak to the bishop, as 'today is a very important feast day and everyone is very busy' (although the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God was not until the following week). There was subsequently no response when Keston telephoned.

When Keston asked Mayor Veniamin Kozlov on 13 September why the Baptists had had to relocate, he replied that the local residents wanted new housing developments in their mikroraion. It was only when Keston asked about Orthodox involvement in the protests that he admitted that 'there were some Orthodox demonstrators, but it was of a purely private nature.' He said that he had met Bishop Ioann, but that the bishop had not demanded anything but had just expressed concern that the Baptist church would be close to the local Orthodox church 'and we try not to put religious organisations right next to one another.' He was anxious to stress that the other religious organisations in Yoshkar-Ola were not having difficulties: 'The Muslims just opened a new mosque: the Finns came and built a beautiful building [the Lutheran church].' When Keston asked why registered Baptists who acted according to the law were nevertheless having to move from their site, he replied: 'There will be a ringroad and a trolleybus line situated there.' Mayor Kozlov argued that alternative sites had been offered, and maintained that it was not serious that the fence had been demolished by the demonstrators as there was as yet was no building there.

Bill Saxton confirmed that Yoshkar-Ola's Muslims had just opened a new mosque, and that the Lutherans were not experiencing any problems. Ruslan Kapitula maintained that Bishop Ioann targetted all non-Orthodox, but then also admitted that he got on well with the Muslims and left the Lutherans alone; 'but they are not very active.' Pastor Gerega also pointed out that Bishop Ioann targetted everyone except the Muslims, whom he considered 'his brothers'. When Keston asked him why the Lutherans had not had problems, Pastor Gerega replied: 'They built their church before anyone knew about it, the Orthodox made a fuss about it afterwards but it was too late.' According to missionaries ROBERT and CHERYL HOSKEN, when the Lutheran bishop from St Petersburg tried to visit Bishop Ioann he turned him away. On 24 July DEACON NIKOLAI YAKIMOV of the Lutheran parish told Keston that although the parish was not yet registered, the authorities were neutral towards it. According to Yakimov, when the parish invited Bishop Ioann to celebrate its fifth anniversary, he did not come: 'He said we are not real Christians.' On 24 July ANU VALIAHO, wife of Finnish Lutheran pastor JUHO VALIAHO, told Keston that their parish was not experiencing problems from either the Russian Orthodox or the authorities because 'Lutheranism is a traditional religion'.

When Keston commented to Bill Saxton that it was unusual for a registered Baptist congregation to experience problems, and asked why he thought this was so, he explained that Reconciliation Baptist Church had a ministry to 10 or 12 villages: 'We show the Jesus film, visits happen weekly in a scheduled way. There are now nuclei of Christians, 25 in one place, 30 in another, whom we have evangelised.' To his knowledge they were the only church with such a ministry 'not even the charismatics or Lutherans do this' and Bishop Ioann had heard about it. At the end of July, he said, a youth group was forced to hold a service in a local park having been refused access to a cultural centre in the settlement of Sovetsky, approximately 25 miles east of Yoshkar-Ola: 'They were told that this was because the bishop disapproved'. Pastor Gerega commented: 'This kind of thing happens everywhere - we get permission from the Minister of Culture to show a film, it is all arranged and then the local Orthodox priest tells the local authorities not to admit us.' He estimated that this happened in approximately 40 to 50 per cent of cases when the church tried to put on an event.

Keston wondered whether, as chair of the Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists Petr Konovalchik and METROPOLITAN KIRILL of the Moscow Patriarchate cooperated closely on the Christian Interconfessional Advisory Committee, the Union might have assisted its member congregation in Yoshkar-Ola by trying to resolve its problems at a higher level. Bill Saxton told Keston that the church 'had not had any reaction' from the Union and had not contacted them, 'but we expect that their attorneys will contact us soon.' Ruslan Kapitula commented: 'They know about it as we have told them, but I don't know their reaction.' Pastor Gerega told Keston that the Union had written to Mari local officials and the Duma when the congregation had last had problems from the authorities (See KNS 3 December 1997- AUTHORITIES IN RUSSIAN PROVINCE SEEK TO BLOCK BAPTIST FESTIVAL), 'but this time everyone was on holiday.' He said that the church had decided 'that we have to deal with our problems ourselves, we can't keep on relying on the people in Moscow to sort everything out for us.' When Keston gave a short description of the situation in Yoshkar-Ola to a spokesperson at the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists on 13 September, she said that the Union had not heard anything about it.

Bill Saxton also told Keston that an FSB (former KGB) official regularly attended services at the church in an official capacity: 'but he is very open and congenial, he has expressed disappointment at the setback in our building plans.' Ruslan Kapitula confirmed that this was the case, but explained 'the special services visit every Protestant church - and sect or cult - especially if it has connections with foreigners or organisations abroad, they are checking that there are no spies. It is quite normal.' (END)

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