Tuesday 24 August

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

'Our situation is practically the same as in the Soviet period,' a Moscow representative of the so-called initsiativniki, or unregistered Baptists, told Keston on 30 July. 'Before there was the Council for Religious Affairs, now there are committees doing the same thing. The same people are in power in local administration now as in the Soviet period. ...They want to prevent us from preaching the gospel.'

Keston has recently received a number of documents complaining of oppressive practices by local authorities in Russia sent by individual congregations belonging to the Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists. The Union broke away from the officially-recognised All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists in 1961 in protest against Soviet imposition of new rules limiting evangelism and keeping children away from church influence.

A document dated 18 June 1999 states that on 11 June police led by chief officer ALEKSANDR IVANOV broke up a street evangelisation meeting in Chernyshevsky, Yakutia (approximately 4800 miles east of Moscow). The report states that the officers took down and confiscated a tent used at the meeting, damaging it in the process, as well as a camera and film of one of the Baptists who photographed the incident. Three Baptists were then arrested and accused of violating the passport regime and the law on public meetings. The three were released three hours later but the tent was not returned. According to the report, now the Baptists are not allowed to carry out services, although street evangelisation meetings continued without the tent. On 15 June two Baptists who went to the police station to request the return of the tent were 'literally thrown out'. They were told by chief officer Ivanov that they would not receive the tent until the presented documents pertaining to it. On 17 June they returned with the requested documents but were again refused its return.

In an interview with Keston on 27 July, Chief officer Ivanov said that the police had no problems whatsoever from unregistered Baptists in Chernyshevsky: 'We do not have anything against them.' He denied that the police had confiscated the tent: 'We just temporarily removed it.' He maintained that the tent had now been returned and denied that it had been
damaged. He also denied that the Baptists had been arrested: 'we only held them because they did not have any identification documents of any kind.' According to Ivanov, the Baptists had violated Article 166 Part 2 of the Administrative Code, as they did not have permission to carry out a public meeting: 'They just set up their tent and started their meeting without authorisation, and that is a violation of Russian law.' When asked if the Baptists had violated the 1997 law on religion, Chief Officer Ivanov paused, apparently uncertain, before replying that in general they had, 'because they are not registered. They have not given us any documents showing their registration as a group.' The Baptists' refusal to keep to the law appeared to be the main reason for his exasperated response to their activities: 'They do not obey any law, they only listen to God, but, thank God, we live in a state governed by our Russian laws.'

The unregistered Baptists' representative with whom Keston spoke on 30 July, who was anxious to remain anonymous, confirmed that the tent had been returned, but that this had occurred only after the Union of Churches had interceded on the congregation's behalf. However, she said that the tent posts had been broken. When Keston said that the police had denied damaging the tent, she replied 'they always say that.'

A 23 April report from the unregistered Baptist congregation in Gorodovikovsk, Kalmykia (approximately 1100 miles south of Moscow) states: 'We have been experiencing oppression from the local authorities since May 1998. They are trying to prevent the preaching of the gospel.' On 17 May 1998 the congregation set up an evangelisation tent on Sovietskaya Street in the town, but 'all attempts to explain our views and principles of service to Mayor A. ANTONOV were in vain - he would not listen to us but said that we did not have state registration and ordered the police to remove the tent.' Police then confiscated the tent and five of the Baptists spent approximately five hours in the police station and were given official warnings. On 23 May two more Baptists went to the police station to discover the fate of the tent. They were detained by Chief Officer V. MIRNY, who stated that he had an order from the mayor to drive the Baptists out of town, and if he did not do so he would be sacked. The same day all six preachers were taken by force beyond the boundaries of Kalmykia. The report also stated that on 12 April 1999 the Baptists' Easter service was broken up and three believers were detained by the police.

In an interview with Keston on 28 July, MIKHAIL BURNINOV, director of the Department for Religious Affairs in Kalmykia, maintained that the Gorodovikovsk Baptists' complaints were without basis. He explained that the authorities had broken up the evangelisation meeting because 'according to the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations only registered organisations have the status of a legal personality, and they must inform the authorities if they want to do things like missionary events or setting up a tent.' As these Baptists were unregistered, he said, they had the status of a religious group and were therefore permitted only 'to hold their services in a private flat without interference.' He did not understand why other religious groups in Kalmykia were content to meet in a flat while the unregistered Baptists were not; from this he concluded that 'the unregistered Baptists choose to provoke the authorities - they purposely enter into conflict situations.'

According to Burninov, the unregistered Baptists had ignored his department ever since it was set up in 1993: 'If only they would come and talk to me I could explain to them how to function within the confines of the law. If they do not want anything to do with us it is not our fault - we are there to regulate secular law.' Burninov could see no reason why the unregistered Baptists should not behave as the registered Baptists, whom he praised: 'they have officially registered, they can set up tents and do missionary work legally, they obey the law. We do not have any problems from the registered Baptists.' Although he was aware of the history of the unregistered Baptists, he refused to accept that nonregistration could remain a principle for a religious organisation in today's Russia: 'They do not accept the organs of power or secular law, but they should follow the laws of the Russian Federation whatever they might be.' When Keston asked whether the current difficulties had arisen since the 1997 law, Burninov said that he was not aware of any problems before the 1997 law was passed. In his view, however, they were a more recent development, and the situation in Gorodovikovsk was 'the first such case as far as I know.' In response to Keston's question as to why the Baptist preachers were taken by force beyond the boundaries of Kalmykia, he argued that they were not residents of Kalmykia but missionaries from another region: 'No one invited them, which is also illegal under the law as they are not registered.'

The anonymous representative of the unregistered Baptists told Keston that it was not true that the preachers were from a different area: 'the area did not previously have a church, she explained, so one person - a leader and his family -moved there as 'there needs to be someone to give pastoral care after initial repentance has taken place. But he is now an official resident, and the others are locals.'

An 11 June report signed by Pastor A. VORONIN, P. KOSTENKO, V. TIMOSHIN, P. KUZNETSOV and V. SOLDATOV described how police threatened to break up a service in the town of Zubova Polyana, Mordovia (400 miles east of Moscow) on the evening of 10 June, but were persuaded to wait until it was over before taking four of the initsiativniki - A. SINITSYN, P. OVCHINNIKOV, V. SHICHKIN and R. ALPATOV- to the central police station. The report states that the police officers did not present any official documentation or warrant. Later the same night two young men smashed up and set light to various items in the prayer house and attempted to set light to one of the Baptists who was keeping watch while he was praying: 'The close link between these two events leads us to suspect that everything which happened took place with the agreement of the organs of power.' At 4.30 pm on 11 June the Baptists were released with the warning that if they continued to conduct services they would be fined.

The anonymous representative of the unregistered Baptists told Keston that there were only approximately ten people in this new congregation, and that there were usually problems in an area if the church was new. She said that the congregation would refuse to pay any fine.

On 19 August ANATOLI BOGATOV, pastor of a registered Baptist church in the Mordovian capital, Saransk, told Keston that he had heard about the incidents in Zubova Polyana from another registered Baptist pastor, GENNADI GAVRILOV, in early July: 'He told me that the authorities had asked him if he had sent a letter interceding for Pastor Voronin's congregation; he said that he had not and did not know anything about the incidents. No one gave us any more details.'

In Bogatov's view such conflicts usually resulted when evangelisation was conducted without the permission of the authorities. He related to Keston an incident which he witnessed near Saransk in 1994: 'It is the style of this church [the initsiativniki] to set up a tent without permission. I was present inside an evangelisation tent which they had set up in a yard when two police and the local mayor came in - their behaviour was very rough and they immediately removed the tent.' There were no conflicts when registered Baptist congregations conducted evangelisation, he maintained: 'We inform the authorities in advance - many people attend, the police are present and there are no incidents. If we act in accordance with the law then the authorities allow evangelisation.' The events of 10 and 11 June were characteristic of Russia, he thought, but pointed out that state opposition towards initsiativniki was stronger in some places than others: 'There is a procommunist regime in Mordovia, so it is strong there.' Bogatov admitted that although his congregation had links with that of Pastor Gavrilov, his attempts to communicate with Pastor Voronin were fruitless: 'The initsiativniki refuse to meet us. They think they are pure, while those who have registered with the authorities are in the service of the Antichrist.'

A May report from ROMAN TULYUPA of Seyakha settlement on the Yamal peninsula (1800 miles north-east of Moscow) states that the congregation there, which consists of Khanty and Nenets who are recent converts from paganism, has been receiving repeated threats from high-level officials to burn their prayer house.

On 29 July NINA DVORNIKOVA, main specialist at the department for informational and analytical research of the administration of Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region, told Keston that this was not a typical occurrence: 'We try not to allow such cases, but they happen when there are incompetent people in the local administration.' She explained that there were a lot of prejudices in such remote areas, and that the principal faith of the 1,723 inhabitants in Seyakha consisted of a mixture of pagan and general Christian elements ('they wouldn't be able to discern what Orthodoxy is, for example.') She did not think that the threats were due to the fact the congregation was of unregistered Baptists: 'Baptists have only just started to occupy this region - they are a new phenomenon and the inhabitants do not know how to deal with them.' She assured Keston that representatives of the regional administration in Salekhard would investigate the situation.

On 27 July ALEKSANDR MENSHIKOV, a Baptist missionary based in Salekhard who evangelises among the Khanty and has established a number of congregations on the Yamal peninsula, explained to Keston that unregistered Baptists faced great problems in this region because 'they do not have the necessary documentation.' A member of the registered Baptist union headed by PETR KONOVALCHIK, he said that he carries documents from his church 'saying that I am allowed to evangelise, and the local authorities do not deal with me harshly - I preach everywhere.' He confirmed that hostility from northern peoples was sometimes due to a clash with existing beliefs: 'They say "We're pagans, we have our own god".'

Speaking to Keston on 24 July, JOHN FORREST, who has worked with Baptist congregations in the region (although registered, these are the church-planting initiatives by the congregation of renowned initsiativnik pastor IOSIF BONDARENKO), was surprised to hear of any hostile attitude from the authorities. He said that Pastor YURI POLTAVETS had recently been invited to preach in Salekhard's schools ('The teachers told him that his church was the only one which could make a moral impression on the pupils'), while Pastor VIKTOR KHOMENKO, who evangelises along the rivers on the Yamal peninsula, was told by the mayor of Yar-Sale that he had 'better move fast before the Orthodox get there first.'

On 26 July independent Baptist missionary NEIL COKER, who is translating the Bible into Khanty and Nenet, confirmed that although missionaries had been held by the police in the settlement of Aksarka, relations between registered Baptists and the authorities were indeed the opposite of problematic: the authorities in Labytnangi provide the church with a helicopter to deliver aid to remote villages, for instance. In his view this was because Orthodoxy was not established in the Yamalo-Nenets region and the Baptists were the only people trying to alleviate the widespread poverty there. His general conclusion was 'everything depends on the whim of the authorities.'

The anonymous Moscow representative of the unregistered Baptists told Keston that the situation for Russia's unregistered Baptists was worsening: 'With every year they try to prevent us more and more.' However, she said it was difficult to say whether developments outlined in the documentation given to Keston were typical of the situation throughout Russia: 'In Bryansk this year everything has been fine, while last year people were beaten up and meetings were broken up - in Saratov it is the other way around. Each place is different.' She commented that there tended to be more problems in the summer, when the weather allowed outdoor evangelisation meetings using tents such as those confiscated in Yakutia and Kalmykia.

In her view, the registered Baptists were not facing difficulties because they had 'an official agreement with the local authorities, as in the Soviet period.' She maintained that today it was still impossible for the initsiativniki to register with the state: 'We are unable to register under the current conditions, it is not that we do not want to. Until there are firm guarantees of non-interference and of the ability to preach the Gospel freely we cannot register.' She believed this to be a reasonable arrangement between church and state: 'When a child is born the state issues him with a birth certificate, but does not insist what he should be fed, what clothes he should wear and so on after that. The church has its own law and we have to be true to Christ regardless of secular laws.'

Although she admitted that the authorities usually referred to the 1997 law in cases when the issue of registration was raised, she did not think that it was instrumental in the current situation, but rather a continuation of Soviet policies following the 'interlude' of perestroika and the early 1990s. However, she said the initsiativniki would not attempt to change the law: 'The law changes as God wills it. We believe the situation depends on Him, and not officials. He gave us the perestroika period for preaching, it did not depend on Gorbachev. If there is persecution we understand that God wills it. We are prepared to continue as we have always done.'

ANDREW OKHOTIN of Russian Evangelical Ministries, Inc., a 'non-profit organisation to represent and aid the Union of unregistered Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists in the former USSR', told Keston that the intensity of threats and in some areas 'blatant violence' had accelerated in the past two or three years, and that this intensity was uncommon. Although the reasons for the threats may vary between locations, he said, 'their very existence is troublesome.' In his view 'the passage of the 1997 legislation is both the product as well as the cause of these restrictive sentiments.' (END)