Issue 6, Article 27, 3 July 2000

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

Monday 3 July 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

The police in the central Siberian town of Tura - the capital of the Evenk
Autonomous Okrug, 3600 miles north-east of Moscow - have threatened to
arrest local Baptists if they continue to hand out free religious literature,
according to a 17 June statement received by Keston News Service from the
Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, of which the
congregation is a member. The police chief for the Evenk Autonomous Okrug
told Keston that the Baptists had committed a crime, even by giving away the
literature free of charge, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom to
disseminate religious views. He claims that religious literature could be
distributed only in places of worship, not in `secular places'.

Tura (population 5,000) is the nearest large settlement west of the town of
Chernyshevsky (400 miles), where another congregation of unregistered
Baptists recently complained of harassment by the local authorities (see KNS
22 May 2000).

On 1 June, according to the Tura Baptists' statement, members of the
congregation offered free Bibles, New Testaments and other religious literature
`to all those who wished to receive it' at the municipal library. An Orthodox
parishioner present reportedly expressed indignation, soon after which the local
Orthodox priest, Father TIMOFEI, arrived on the scene, forbade the
distribution of religious literature and threatened to call the police.

On 8 June, the statement continues, the Baptists began to distribute religious
literature in the town centre, whereupon Orthodox parishioners again
threatened to call the police. When distribution continued on 9 June, one
passer-by reportedly asked one of the Baptists: `On what grounds are you
selling literature? Get away from here, the police will deal with you!' Despite
explaining that they were giving literature away and not selling it, say the
Baptists, they were subsequently called into the local police station for
questioning. There, the statement continues, police major A. GONCHAROV
made out that they belonged to an `unregistered religious group which is
prohibited from distributing literature', to which they replied: `Is there an
article in the law prohibiting us as Russian citizens from distributing this
literature?' According to the statement, Goncharov answered that there was not,
but threatened to arrest the Baptists all the same if they did not stop distributing

Speaking to Keston by telephone from Tura on 30 June, the head of the
Department of Internal Affairs of the Evenk Autonomous Okrug IVAN
PANOV claimed that the Baptists had not been obstructed. He maintained that
they needed to register as a congregation before they could legally distribute
literature, and even then must do so from a designated shop or kiosk. When
Keston asked whether this was the case even if they were giving away literature
rather than selling it, he replied that it was: `They still need to obtain
permission. They could be distributing any kind of propaganda or agitation.'
Panov drew a clear line between distribution within a place of worship - `if it is
within a prayer house that is fine, they can do so without causing any kind of
conflict' - and elsewhere. `It is forbidden to distribute religious literature in
secular places.' He claimed that the latter point applied to both religious
organisations and individual citizens.

According to Panov, what the Baptists had done was punishable by law but
was not a serious violation, and they had since `found a common language'
with the authorities. `In general they don't break the law, and there have been
no consequences.' He maintained that there was no need for concern:
`Everything's fine, fine, fine.' Although it had been suggested to the Baptists
that they register with the authorities, Panov did not know whether they
intended to do so or not and was surprised to learn that refusal to register might
be one of the congregation's principles.

According to Russia's 1997 law on religion, `an association of citizens formed
for the goals of joint confession and dissemination of their faith' carrying out
its activities without state registration constitutes a religious group, which does
not have the right to distribute religious literature (Article 7). (However, Article
28 of the Russian Constitution grants each citizen the right to `disseminate
religious and other convictions and act in accordance with them'.) Member
congregations of the Council of Churches refuse on principle to be registered
with the state authorities in any of the former Soviet republics where they are
active because they believe registration leads to unacceptable interference in
their internal church affairs. In their 17 June statement, the Tura congregation
implored the authorities not to obstruct their activity, `since we do not violate
Russian laws, and, moreover, fulfil the commandment of Jesus Christ - to
Whom all authority in heaven and on Earth has been given - to go and teach all
nations.' (END)

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