by Geraldine Fagan and Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

American Baptist pastor Dan Pollard is fighting to remain in the church he built himself in the town of Vanino, 5000 miles east of Moscow, despite continuing pressure from the local authorities. On 7 February Pollard told a Keston representative that when he returned to Khabarovsk province with a fresh three-month visa three days earlier immigration officials told him that he had two weeks to provide documentation certifying that his church was legal.

When he last attempted to enter Khabarovsk in November 1998 Pollard was told that because he had been invited by a church based in Moscow he would have to register his visa there. Following his return to Khabarovsk Pollard submitted his application for re-registration under the 1997 law 'On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations' on 1 December. However, on 10 January he told Keston that he had still not received a letter of notification from the provincial Ministry of Justice 'even though they are required by law to respond within one month'. On 29 January YEKATERINA SMYSLOVA, Pollard's lawyer from the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Law, told Keston that Pollard's registration papers had been submitted 'for expert examination': 'The tiniest irregularity is being used against Dan'.

The irregularity in question appears to be Pollard's decision to join the Pentecostal union of Sergei Ryakhovsky, which has already obtained registration, in the hope that his church will thus be exempt from Article 27 of the new law, which states that a religious organisation less than 15 years old does not have the right to employ foreign citizens. On 27 January Pollard told Keston that he believes that the advisor to the Khabarovsk administration on relations with religious organisations, VIKTOR NIKULNIKOV, is trying to draw out the re-registration process: 'He is going to spend six months with a commission to try to investigate if we are legal to join this group'.

Why has an independent Baptist decided to join a Pentecostal union? On 28 November Pollard explained to Keston that his church would remain autonomous within Ryakhovsky's union, which contains Baptists and other denominations as well as Pentecostals. He added that Nikulnikov had advised him to join the local Registered Baptist church in Khabarovsk, but that GENNADI ABRAMOV, leader of the Registered Baptists in Far East Russia, had made it clear to him that if he joined them his church would lose its autonomy: 'This is not acceptable to us: our independence is one of the main characteristics of our Baptist heritage. There are Baptist conventions like this in America, but the thousands of Baptist churches we fellowship with are not in any convention.'

On 8 February ANNA VODNENKO, head of the registration department of religious and social organisations of Khabarovsk krai, told Keston that the fact that the Baptist Dan Pollard wanted to register as part of a Pentecostal union had resulted in the relevant documentation being passed on to an expert committee attached to the krai administration. She confirmed that the official period for review was six months.

In an interview with a Keston representative on 9 February Viktor

Nikulnikov explained that Pollard's application for re-registration required expert analysis because it contained a statement of Pentecostal belief, when everyone knew that he was a Baptist. According to Nikulnikov, people are usually particular about what they believe ('Faith is at the core of a person's convictions'), whereas Pollard didn't seem to care whether he was a Pentecostal or Baptist. It was obvious to everyone, he said, that Pollard needs registration as part of a central religious organisation in order to stay in Vanino: 'We're not fools, we understand what's really going on. Dan Pollard is not a Christian. There is an extra ingredient mixed in with the purity of his faith.'

On 10 January Pollard told Keston that he believes Nikulnikov is behind a smear campaign against him in the local press: 'He is the only one who has any interest in us and access to the information mentioned.' On 23 December the Khabarovsk newspaper 'Pacific Star' printed a lengthy article arguing that the fuss created in America by Dan Pollard's case - typified by Senator GORDON SMITH's statement 'I don't want American taxpayers to support a government which appears to be returning to the past' - is unfounded: 'No one forced him out of Russia, his visa simply ran out'. Pollard informed Keston that the article had also been printed in a Vanino newspaper, but that both newspapers had refused to print his response 'which by law they are required to do'. He added that when members of his church had complained to the Vanino newspaper about the article 'they said that they were being forced to print it'.

According to the article, Dan Pollard has been deceiving the Khabarovsk authorities. It states that he first travelled to the province on a business visa after being invited by Vanino Maritime Commercial Port to teach American methods of construction, but conducted religious activity instead ('If a Russian citizen [did the same thing] in America he would simply be expelled'). In August 1998, it alleges, it was discovered that - except for the year 1998 - no taxes had been paid on the building in the course of five years. However, although the article insists that the new law has not triggered a general witchhunt against foreign preachers, it does give this change in the law as the reason why Pollard was unable to renew his visa after 27 March 1998.

In his reply to the article Pollard counters that he first visited Vanino on a tourist visa, during which time he was invited to pastor a church. He says that in discussions with local officals he offered to build premises for church services and work as pastor, 'I also offered to teach modern construction for free'. He adds 'I have paid much money in taxes on the property.' According to Pollard his church was organised only in 1995, when it immediately applied for registration, and in 1996 was 'approved as a church with full rights'.

On 28 November Pollard told Keston that he knew of ten other foreign missionaries who had been expelled from Khabarovsk: 'They were caught and sent home'. On 7 February a Keston representative asked him if he knew why they had not also protested. He replied that when he spoke to two Lutheran missionaries from Oregon on his July flight to the United States, they told him that they had also been forced out by Nikulnikov, but were going to 'be quiet and sneak back in another way'.

On 9 February, however, Nikulnikov told a Keston representative that other Baptists, unregistered initsiativniki Baptists, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses were not experiencing any difficulties with the krai authorities because unlike Pollard they were conducting their affairs in a proper manner: 'Pollard is trying to make out that he is suffering'. In his opinion Pollard had acted dishonestly from the beginning by having different aims than those stated on his visa: 'He completely ignored our laws: This isn't Africa, if one of our citizens went to America or Korea and behaved like that then he would be expelled right away'. According to Nikulnikov the krai authorities have not driven him out despite his violations of the law: 'We are more considerate towards missionaries'.

Dan Pollard, however, now believes that Nikulnikov is trying to delay registration in order to force the church out of existence after the registration deadline of 31 December 1999: 'When the new law on religion was passed I immediately visited Nikulnikov, asking what I needed to do to comply with the new law. : He said that I and my family would have to leave Russia along with all other foreign missionaries: He is sitting on our documents and has told immigration that we don't have them'. Nikulnikov explained to Keston that the incident at the airport on 4 February was probably simply a case of immigration officials reminding Pollard that he had to register his visa like other foreigners. He added that even if the expert committee reaches a negative decision the church in Vanino will not be closed down: 'It will only lose certain rights of a legal personality, according to Article 27 of the law on religion.' (END)