KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 15 December 2000

regional authorities have stepped up pressure on the Living Faith Pentecostal
church in the town of Penza. Distribution of the church's newspaper is being
disrupted, establishments that work with the Pentecostals have been forced to
withdraw from joint projects, and pressure has been put on the local cinema, where
the church holds services, not to renew the lease.


by Mikhail Edelstein, Keston News Service

The regional authorities have stepped up pressure on the Living Faith Pentecostal
church in the town of Penza, 440 miles (700 km) east of Moscow. The regional
governor's office is obstructing the distribution of the church's newspaper,
establishments that work with the Pentecostals have been forced to withdraw from
joint projects and last month pressure was put on the local cinema, where the
church holds services, not to renew the lease.

The church, founded in April 1997 and led by pastor Oleg Serov, now has to hold
services in an unfinished building where the temperature falls to minus 15 degrees.
Because of the cold, no more than one third of the congregation - around 100 -
attended services on 23 and 30 November. Church leaders had not planned to start
holding services in the building until January.

The church's secretary, Sergei Strokov, told Keston on 4 December that it had had
no significant problems with the authorities until the middle of this year. However,
relations worsened on 19 July, when the head of the department for religious faiths
in the governor's office, Vladimir Popkov, grabbed several copies of the Living
Faith newspaper from distributors and ripped them up. The following day, on
Popkov's orders, several distributors were arrested and taken to the regional police
department. The newspaper's editor, Aleksei Chekushin, then arrived. After a
discussion between Popkov and Chekushin, all those arrested were set free and no
police report was drawn up. Similar incidents took place in the following days.
The Penzpechat corporation halted distribution of the paper through its kiosks. At
the same time, the regional justice administration launched an `anti-sect' campaign
in the state media.

Popkov told Keston on 6 December that local Pentecostals, led by Pastor Serov,
had launched a slander campaign against him. He said Living Faith was the only
religious organisation in the region in dispute with the authorities. Popkov said the
dispute with the paper's distributors arose after people who bought the paper,
believing it to be a charitable publication, complained to the regional authorities
about its religious content. Popkov believes the publication is contravening its own
statute, as well as Russian law.

Almost simultaneously, a veterans' home, the children's hospital, the centre for
rehabilitation of young disabled people and the children´┐Żs library suddenly refused
to continue working with the Pentecostals.

The director of the veterans' home, Anatoli Lomakin, told church leaders he
declined help on the orders of the regional Minister for Labour, Viktor Lazarev,
who threatened to replace him if he did not do so. Lomakin later denied he had
said this. Lomakin was unavailable, as he is currently on leave, but the home's
acting director, Andrey Zolotov, told Keston on 6 December that a residents'
meeting had taken the decision because church members carried out religious
propaganda during visits and because of a slanderous article about the home in the
church's paper. No official put any pressure on the home's management.

The children's library director, Mariya Akhunova, confirmed to Keston on 6
December that officials had insisted on a halt to cooperation with the church,
though she declined to name them. She said her boss had said that such
cooperation infringed the library's statute, adding that her colleagues had been told
- wrongly - that Living Faith was not registered and was operating illegally.
Strokov said that Akhunova had previously told church members that pressure had
come from the regional deputy minister of culture, Olga Kochergina. Keston
contacted Kochergina on 6 December, but she declined to comment.

Popkov denied that officials of the governor's office had exerted any pressure, but
said such cooperation was illegal as it took place without the knowledge of
regional ministers and without the necessary agreements. Popkov claimed that a
religious organisation needed a licence to carry out charitable work, which Living
Faith did not have. The director of the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and
Law, Anatoli Pchelintsev, told Keston that the law does not require religious
associations to have any additional documents to carry out charitable work.

In the latest difficulty for the church, the regional authorities refused the church an
extension to its lease of the Salyut cinema. On 23 November, Strokov reported,
Galina Kalmykova of the regional justice administration and Mikhail Kulichkov of
the regional ministry for the administration of state property visited the cinema to
oversee the Pentecostals' expulsion.

The rental agreement between the Pentecostals, the regional ministry for
administration of state property and the cinema covered April to October. In July,
church leaders asked for an extension, but were refused. According to Strokov,
even before this the head of the department for rental of ministry property, Viktor
Komarov, tried to persuade the cinema's director, Svetlana Petrova, to cancel the
agreement, but she refused.

On 4 December, Keston spoke to Kulichkov, but he referred all questions to
Komarov. That same day, Komarov told Keston that the heads of the regional
ministry of culture and of the ministry for the administration of state property had
jointly refused an extension, saying the Pentecostals' services were hampering the
cinema's essential functions. He described the lease agreement as a mistake from
the start.

Cinema director Petrova told Keston on 4 December that she had nothing against
Living Faith and said services had not obstructed the cinema's cultural work.

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