Issue 7, Article 12, 17 July 2000

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

Monday 17 July 2000

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

Although Baptists in the southern town of Kursk near the Ukrainian border
have been able to recover a banner confiscated from outside Grace Church in
September 1999 at the prompting of the local Orthodox bishop and on the
orders of the town's mayor, SERGEI MALTSEV, they remain unhappy that a
promised meeting with Maltsev to discuss their grievances has still not
materialised. For two years Baptist pastors
in the town have been trying to arrange such a meeting to discuss what they
claim is ever-increasing discrimination from the local authorities. They
complain that the Russian Orthodox Church is successfully pressuring the town
authorities to restrict the rights of non-Orthodox faiths. Keston News Service
has confirmed that Orthodox pressure led the House of Knowledge in Kursk to
refuse to rent its
premises to the Baptists.

OLGA DYUMINA, who heads the mayor's department for relations with social
and religious organisations, told Keston on 6 July that the authorities had
managed to locate the missing banner in the storeroom of the highways
department and have now returned it to the Baptists, although she doubts
whether they will be able to erect it in its former location in the town centre.
Senior presbyter at the Grace Church, IGOR PETROV, confirmed on 6 July
that the banner had indeed been returned. `They brought it back, but it has been
torn in two places,' he told Keston. `They are now saying that the problem has
been resolved.' Following the disappearance of the expensive banner last year,
Maltsev told listeners to an Orthodox local radio programme: `I tore these
Baptist banners down.'

However, the Baptists' problems are far from over. Petrov reported that when
his church held a celebration of 2000 years of Christianity, they rented a hall
seating 600 people at the House of Knowledge in Kursk. Inspired by the event's
success, the church again approached the House of Knowledge to rent the hall
to hold Bible study classes, but this time the response was evasive. The
director of the House of Knowledge told the Baptist leaders that the local
Orthodox hierarch, Archbishop YUVENALY (TARASOV) of Kursk and
Rylsk, was very angry that the hall had been let to the Baptists and had
declared that he would never set foot in the place again. The public relations
officer at the Kursk House of Knowledge - who declined to give her name -
told Keston on 13 July that the House of Knowledge had on one occasion
rented its hall to the `Evangelicals' (evangelisty). She was unable to tell
whether they were evangelicals or Baptists, as people at the House of
Knowledge `knew nothing about this church'. Asked by Keston why they were
no longer renting the hall to the Baptists, she replied that there had been a
conflict with the local Orthodox diocese and that priests had been angered that
such activities had been allowed on the premises.

The rental problems at the House of Knowledge are not unique. SERGEI
POPOV, senior presbyter at the Light of the Gospel church in Kursk, told
Keston that the director of the House of Culture, where Baptists rent a small
hall, had received a telephone call from the department of culture advising him
not to `welcome the Baptist sect'. Baptists are also experiencing problems with
plans to hold a summer children's camp.

The Baptists have repeatedly sought a meeting with the mayor to discuss the
refusal of the town authorities to allocate plots of land to Baptist congregations
for the building of new churches and the ban on renting municipal buildings
such as cinemas, halls and houses of culture (see KNS 18 April 2000). In a
conversation with Keston on 12 May, Dyumina had said that the mayor's office
had taken steps to improve the situation. `We have made enquiries about the
plots of land, including at the town planning department and are hoping we will
receive detailed responses rather than set replies.' However, the situation in
July has not altered. The mayor has still not met the Baptist leaders, though
Dyumina claims this is because he is `very busy', and no progress has been
made in the allocation of land.

Pastor Petrov had a lengthy meeting with Archbishop Yuvenaly during which,
according to him, they were able to discuss matters calmly. According to
Petrov, Archbishop Yuvenaly admitted that the banner belonging to the Grace
church had been removed at his request, adding that there should not be such
advertisements promoting the activities of `sectarians'. He explained that his
task was to `protect his flock from sectarians'. Archbishop Yuvenaly had
agreed to meet the Baptist pastor in obedience to the Biblical command to `love
your enemies'.

The Kursk diocesan secretary, Father SERGI KHUDYAKOV, professes
himself happy with the religious situation in the town, describing it as
`wonderful'. `Let the Baptists be unhappy, our state religion is Orthodoxy after
all,' he told Keston from Kursk on 4 July. He did agree with Keston's reminder
that Russia is a secular state, but argued that `Orthodoxy is our state religion, in
the same way as it is in Greece and as Catholicism is in Latin America.
Therefore a Russian can only be Orthodox and our duty is to help him to
choose the right spiritual path and protect him from false teachings.' Father
Sergi detected no problems between the Baptists and the authorities. According
to him they do not need to build any more churches since they already have the
huge Grace church in the town centre. He is also unhappy that Baptists
advertise their church activities. He claims that the Grace church's banner was
removed because it had caused public offence. `People objected and the
authorities removed it - how can you advertise a church?' Father Sergi prefers
quieter rival religious groups. `The Baptists are too visible, unlike the Muslims
and the Jews, who pray quietly in their homes and are inconspicuous.' (END)

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