Issue 10, Article 4, 4 October 2000

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

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SUMMARY: In contrast to reports that only Orthodox clergy have access to
Russia�s armed forces, Keston has found out that two members of a Moscow
Protestant Church were gratefully received and permitted to preach and
distribute gifts among the armed forces based in the southern Russian republic
of Dagestan. Their meetings were arranged through the Military Christian
Union of Russia whose mission is to act 'as a bridge between the armed forces
and churches'. MCUR was set up by US Vietnam war veteran King Coffman,
but is now run by a retired Russian military officer.

Wednesday 4 October 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

From 15 to 17 August, Pastor ALEKSEI KLIMENKO and administrator
SERGEI PAKHOMKIN of Moscow Greater Grace Church 'Christian Life'
were permitted to preach and distribute gifts among the armed forces based in
Makhachkala and Kaspiisk in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan. The
only precondition set by the navy personnel who issued the invitation was that
the church workers bring a consignment of aid parcels for the troops, Pastor
Klimenko told Keston on 31 August, 'otherwise we could do what we liked'.

The Military Christian Union of Russia (MCUR) contacted approximately 100
Protestant churches with the invitation from the navy in early August.
LYUDMILA KACHKAR of MCUR told Keston that 'Christian Life' was the
only one to accept. In the view of both Kachkar and Klimenko, this could be
ascribed to a strong pacifist tradition among Protestants, especially Baptists.
The position of the overwhelmingly Protestant MCUR - whose mission is to
act 'as a bridge between the armed forces and churches' - is that a Christian has
a moral duty to protect his motherland - although, according to Kachkar, they
find it 'unacceptable' that there is no real provision for alternative military
service in Russia.

MCUR is billed as interdenominational. Kachkar pointed out that the Union
was pleased to have 'found a common language' with Catholics at parish level,
but lamented that it was 'difficult to work with the Orthodox as they do not
even want to talk to us'. Founded in the mid-1990s by an American Vietnam
veteran, the late KING COFFMAN, MCUR is now headed by OLEG
ASKALYONOK, a Baptist pastor and retired air force captain from the
Russian Far East.

Kachkar believes that the good relations between MCUR and the armed forces
could probably be put down to the fact that MCUR had a proven record of

On 12 September First Rank Captain of the Russian navy VALERI NOVIKOV
confirmed Kachkar's and Klimenko's claim that the military was primarily
concerned with concrete results. When Keston asked why the navy had chosen
to work with MCUR, Novikov replied: 'Because they're good people, of
heartfelt sincerity. We consider their moral support useful to the sailors.' The
reaction from the troops to the visit had been positive, said Novikov, since the
church workers had talked to them 'as Christians in normal language: they are
young men in difficult conditions so this concern means a lot to them.' Novikov
contrasted this approach with his experience of foreign chaplains over the past
decade: 'They gave me the impression that they thought this was Africa and
they had come to savages. '

A participant in the August trip to Dagestan, Kachkar was convinced that it had
made a concrete difference. At the end of one preaching session, she related,
'approximately two-thirds of the hall prayed for repentance and asked for God's

She emphasised to Keston that she and the church workers had been present
not as Protestants or Orthodox, but just as Christians. The group had explained
to the troops that they believed 'in the same Christ as the Orthodox but have a
different way of manifesting our faith.' He stressed that he had not called the
soldiers 'to come to our Church - they can go to their [the Orthodox] Church if
they like - we just want their sins to be forgiven.'

Klimenko said that he had not seen any signs during his visit that the Orthodox
were engaged in active ministry to the troops, although he had high praise for
Fr ALEKSANDR BORISOV of the Moscow parish of SS Cosmas and
Damian, who had visited the same bases earlier in the year. In Klimenko's view
this could be because the Russian Orthodox Church was no longer capable of
Christian witness in such situations: 'They believe that everyone is
automatically a believer from childhood onwards, whereas missionary work is
our main activity.'

Although the Orthodox enjoyed preference according to the law, Klimenko
said, laws did not work in practice in Russia: 'Everything depends upon
personal relations'. Keston asked whether he thought the invitation from the
navy signified a change of policy within the presidential administration.
Klimenko replied that he was unsure whether it reached to that level. However,
he thought it possible that the presidential administration might in fact be
indifferent to the Orthodox Church. He was certain of one thing, however: 'The
Russian Orthodox Church could not possibly have been consulted - otherwise
there could have been only one possible answer.'

Novikov pointed out the multiconfessional nature of Russia and also
emphasised that statements made by some journalists to the effect that the
leadership of the army insisted on an exclusively Orthodox ministry and put
obstacles in the way of non-Orthodox were 'unfounded.'

The Russian Orthodox Church's ministry to the armed forces is the concern of
its Department for Collaboration with the Armed Forces and Security
Institutions, one of whose aims is 'educating military personnel in the spirit of
Orthodoxy, patriotism and love for the motherland.' Keston repeatedly
attempted to contact this department in order to discover what form its activity
took and how it viewed collaboration between the armed forces and other
denominations, but there was no response.

The Russian national daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta pointed out on 6
October 1999 that over the past four years Patriarch Aleksi II has met the heads
of all ministries and departments connected with the military: 'Almost every
such meeting culminated in the signing of a joint declaration or agreement on
collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church.'(END)

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