Issue 9, Article 15, 22 September 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

SUMMARY: Local police have been used to break up local Baptist
evangelistic meetings in Russia. Believers were put in police cars and taken to
the local police station where they were searched and had their passport details
taken. The head of the local administration told Keston he was motivated partly
out of consideration for the law and partly out of concern for the spiritual
welfare of his fellow-citizens.

Friday 22 September 2000

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

In the latest incident of opposition from the local authorities and the police to
their activity, Baptists belonging to the Council of Churches, a group which
refuses to register with the state authorities, encountered opposition to their
evangelistic meetings in August in a village in Mordovia, 650 km east of
Moscow. VASILY SYRKIN, head of the local administration of Komsomolsky
in Chamzinka district, used the local police to stop local Baptists from holding
such meetings, claiming he was motivated partly out of consideration for the
law and partly out of concern for the spiritual welfare of his fellow-citizens.

According to an account by A.N. VORONIN, a member of the Baptist
congregation, received by Keston News Service, a group of Baptists arrived in
Komsomolsky in August to preach and distribute religious literature. They
notified administration head Syrkin of their plans in advance. However, on 13
August the police interrupted their service and demanded to see documentation
giving permission for the meeting to
be held. According to Voronin, the Baptists did not consider it necessary to
request permission for their meeting because Article 28 of the Russian
Constitution guarantees the right `freely to choose, profess and disseminate
religious or other convictions and to act in accordance with one's beliefs'.

During a later Baptist meeting on 23 August, Syrkin arrived with the local
Orthodox priest. The Baptists maintain he was `motivated not by a respect for
the law but by personal ambition and his loyalty to the Russian Orthodox
Church'. He told the Baptists that they were unwelcome and should leave the
village. He then sent a police detachment on the evening of the same day to
break up the meeting. The leaders were forced into a police car while the police
removed their property and loaded it into the car, damaging it in the process.
The Baptists were then taken to the local internal affairs department, where
their passport details were taken down and they were thoroughly searched.

On 25 August the Baptists once again came to the village to preach. Syrkin
arrived before the service started and spent 15 minutes demanding that they
leave. The preachers were seized and taken to the local police where they were
detained until nightfall, by which time it would be impossible to continue with
the service. They were also warned that if they tried to hold another service
they would be prevented from doing so.

Syrkin told Keston by telephone from Komsomolsky on 6 September that the
Baptist version of events was accurate, though he stressed that no force had
been used to remove the preachers. According to Syrkin, ten days' written
notice must be given for such an event and has to include details of the form
and content of the proposed meeting. He stated that when the Baptists had
earlier approached him in person and asked him to allow their meeting to take
place he had agreed `since we have freedom of conscience in our country'.
However, when he saw the Baptists erect their large tent with all their
equipment and loudspeakers, Syrkin demanded that they show a licence for the
meeting or the registered statute of their organisation. `When no documentation
was forthcoming I asked them to take down their tent within one hour, which
they refused to do. I then called in the police.'

Syrkin reported that the Baptists had lodged a complaint against him to the
local procurator's office, stating that he was preventing a religious service from
being held. One hundred Orthodox residents of the village had also lodged a
complaint at the local procuracy asking that the Baptist preachers be removed.
According to Syrkin, the local Orthodox priest had come to see him and had
`begged' him to remove the Baptists. He had then explained to the people that
`Baptists are deceivers': although they call themselves Christians they oppose
the wearing of crosses and icons and visiting graves. Syrkin said that he had
summoned one Baptist and asked him if it was true that Baptists did not wear
crosses. The Baptist did not reply which, it seems, sealed the fate of their
evangelistic campaign.

Local government officials in various parts of Russia have opposed the
evangelistic activities of the Baptists from the Council of Churches. According
to VLADIMIR BORISKIN, advisor to the government of Mordovia on
religious affairs and member of the expert committee on religion, unregistered
religious organisations in Russia are not protected by the law and the police can
take any action against them. `Although the Russian constitution guarantees
freedom of conscience the Law on Freedom of Conscience talks about the
registration of religious organisations. The act of registration means that the
state will defend the interests of a given religious organisation.' There are a
number of religious organisations in Russia who do not wish to register with
the authorities, for example, Muslim organisations, although they do not
organise public gatherings.

It is a different matter, stated Boriskin, when the Orthodox Church, under the
guise of `defending the people against harmful totalitarian sects' such as Aum
Shinrikyo and others, tries with all its might to restrict the activities of both
registered religious organisations - such as the Pentecostals, the Adventists and
the Hare Krishna movement - and unregistered groups.

On 6 September Keston asked the lawyer and co-chairman of the Moscow-
based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV, for a
legal assessment. He explained that the Constitution does guarantee the right to
every citizen to profess and to spread his religious convictions, although there
are certain points to bear in mind. If there is going to be a large gathering of
people then, in
accordance with the 1992 presidential decree `On the conduct of meetings,
processions and demonstrations', the organisers must have written permission
from the local authorities for it to go ahead. This is not required for individual
preaching or for the distribution of religious literature.

Registered religious organisations whose activities are governed by their
statutes do not fall under the ambit of this decree, but the Baptists of the
Council of Churches refuse on principle to register with the state because they
consider registration to be interference in the internal affairs of a religious
community. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.