US MORMON MISSIONARIES BEAR THE BRUNT OF ANTI-AMERICAN FEELING IN CHELYABINSK



By Geraldine Fagan and Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service



Police officers and officials from the governor's commission on human rights in Chelyabinsk, 1200 miles east of Moscow, broke up a Mormon worship service on Sunday 28 March and took eight American missionaries away for questioning, community elder MICHAEL HARRINGTON told Keston News Service on 5 April. Commission chairman YEKATERINA GORINA reportedly told the missionaries: 'If your government is going to mess with Yugoslavia then we'll shut you down in Chelyabinsk.'



On 5 April a full page article by Gorina entitled '"Elders" from America "Bomb" a School' appeared in the local newspaper Vecherny Chelyabinsk, accompanied by a large picture of a cowboy (taken from an advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes) lassoing a Russian school. In her article Gorina describes a Mormon service at the school, which 'did not resemble so much a school as a sectarian parish.' She relates how 'so-called communion' took place and the faces of the people present 'lit up only when they saw the preachers.' With their 'white shirts, black suits and white-toothed smiles', says Gorina, the missionaries matched 'a textbook description of sectarian leaders.' What she observed leads her to conclude that the Mormons 'bore all the hallmarks of a religious cult'.



The article goes on to catalogue the various ways in which the group have broken the law: the missionaries, writes Gorina, repeatedly failed to register locally; as a religious group the Mormons are forbidden under the 1997 Law on Religion 'to hold religious rites and ceremonies outside cult buildings, distribute literature and other objects of religious significance or to teach children what she earlier describes as 'an alien neo-religion'; they are also violating the Law on Education, which 'proclaims the secular nature of education in state institutions'. However, claims Gorina, 'recent world events show that disregard for the rights and laws of others is practically a national characteristic of Americans.'



DONALD JARVIS, president of the Mormon mission in Yekaterinburg, told Keston that the congregation - one of three in Chelyabinsk - had been meeting in the school for two years. He agreed that as the group was not registered this was 'technically illegal', but said that there were no other premises available. He expressed surprise at the action of the authorities: 'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was registered in Moscow as a centralised religious organisation in May 1998.' He told Keston that the Chelyabinsk community, however, had not yet registered as a local religious organisation 'but we have applied.'



Michael Harrington told Keston that after the service had been disrupted the American missionaries - including himself - were detained at a local police station for three hours and given an official warning that they must register their passports and visas at the local OVIR office. Donald Jarvis admitted that in this respect the missionaries had been at fault, and explained: 'We've registered in Yekaterinburg. In Chelyabinsk OVIR just asked for a list of names of our people but refused to register us; we have tried.'



Harrington told Keston that he spends four or five hours a day at the OVIR office trying to get his American colleagues registered: 'The officials continually quote bits of the law [on religion] at me, specifically Article 20[which states that only religious organisations have the right to invite foreign citizens in a professional capacity]'. On Thursday 1 April, said Harrington, he was told repeatedly by OVIR officials that if the group held another meeting the missionaries would be deported: 'They have told us flat out to our faces that they think we're agents of the American government.'



Head of the Chelyabinsk branch of Mormons VITALI DENISOV said that there were currently 16 missionaries in Chelyabinsk, of whom six had not registered. He confirmed that OVIR officials had made threats, specifically, to stop their Easter Sunday meeting if the Americans did not register. On 29 March, said Denisov, he met the head of the regional OVIR office COLONEL YAKIN, who warned him that the Americans had no right to engage in missionary activity on the territory of the oblast without registration. According to Denisov, the Americans agreed to this.



The main problem, thought Denisov, was not registration of the missionaries themselves, however, but the refusal of the local Directorate of Justice to register the Mormons as a religious organisation: 'They refused registration and explained that they could not see any sense in founding a community of Mormons in Chelyabinsk when there were already Orthodox in the city as well as other religious organisations.' In Denisov's opinion, there is an unspoken agreement in Chelyabinsk between the governor and the Orthodox bishop to oppress all confessions accept Orthodoxy.



Head of the registration department of Chelyabinsk oblast Directorate of Justice NATALYA SHUMAKOVA confirmed that the Mormon community was not registered. She said that they had twice been refused registration for not having a correctly drawn-up charter.



Specialist on the registration of religious organisations at the Directorate of Justice LYUDMILA LOGINOVA told Keston that the Mormons were currently simply an unregistered group in the process of registering as a religious organisation, and confirmed that they had previously been denied registration due to inaccuracies in their charter. She was unable to say when the Mormons would be registered. In her opinion, local press items claiming that the Mormons broke the law might prevent their registration. However, she stressed that this was a matter for the procuracy as that was where information concerning violations of the law would be sent. Loginova was unable to cite concrete instances of how the Mormons had broken the law, but noted that according to the 1997 Law on Religion only a religious organisation had the right to invite foreign missionaries.



On 7 April Yekaterina Gorina explained to a Keston representative that the Mormons were breaking the law by not being registered in the oblast, by conducting services in a school and by attracting minors to their community. 'Just try going into a school in America and start preaching to children like they did, it would not be possible', she said. In her view operating without registration constituted a complete violation of the 1997 Law on Religion and was thus 'a violation of human rights': 'Clearly it will be very difficult for the Mormons to obtain registration after all these violations'.



She added that the Mormons' American influence interested her in connection with the conflict in Yugoslavia: 'Teaching such as that of the Mormons divorces simple people from real life so that they start to become orientated toward America.' Gorina said that traditional religions - which in her view included Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Islam - were 'highly developed' in Chelyabinsk oblast: 'We have our own distinct culture and traditions.' She termed the Mormons 'a saboteur sect' and added 'We have already warned the public to resist American influence.'



Specialist on relations with religious organisations in Chelyabinsk VASILI GERMAN told Keston that as far as he knew the Mormons were undergoing registration in the usual way: 'the administration of the oblast does not have anything against Mormons.' He said that no Mormon had made contact either with him personally or with his committee on religion, and that usually once a religious organisation approached this committee he recommended them to the Directorate of Justice, while the Directorate of Justice sent information about the religious organisation to the committee. However, said German, he had not received any such information from the Directorate of Justice. He emphasised that the protracted process of registering the Mormons had no bearing on the authorities' stance towards the American missionaries: 'According to the law on religion, missionary work is not forbidden here.'



Michael Harrington, however, thought that the law did stipulate that the Mormons could not engage in missionary work, but that they could still function as a religious group under Article 7. He believed that the officials were interpreting the law to mean that a religious group could not have meetings if they were not registered: 'They don't understand their own laws.' In an attempt to give assurances of their legality, said Harrington, Mormon representatives met with low-ranking police officers on Friday 2 April and told them that the Americans were simply attending worship services while Russian nationals conducted them: 'They said that they understood but that if they were told to break up the Easter meeting, they would.'



Vitali Denisov told Keston that the head of the school had been happy to let the Mormons use the premises because they were reliable rent-payers. Following the events of 29 March, he said, the Mormons had nowhere to meet and so joined his group at the House of Culture for their Easter service, but that this was not disrupted by police. He noted, however, that there was a feeling of tension among the congregation: 'Everyone understood that the authorities were exerting particular pressure on believers.' He added that RAISA RUDYAKOVA, deputy head of the school where the Mormons had held their services, had been interrogated by the FSB about the group. As she was also a member of the congregation, they forbade her to take part in religious activity; 'in practice to confess any religion', stressed Denisov.



Harrington confirmed that the Easter service had not been disrupted, in his view because the Mormons had threatened legal action. Donald Jarvis was unsure why the police had not returned and remained wary: 'They might come back - [due to the situation in the Balkans] feelings are riding high at the moment.'



In Jarvis' view, however, the most 'sinister' occurrence took place on the evening of Saturday 3 April: the apartment rented by missionary JASON SHELTON was broken into but he thought that as there were no signs of a forced entry a key must have been used. As far as they knew, he said, only the tenants and landlord had keys. 'It was not a regular burglary', Michael Harrington, a tenant at the flat, told Keston: in addition to 100 US dollars, he said, only rolls of unexposed film, negatives, a Dictaphone, cassettes and two old telephones had been taken, while expensive items such as an electric guitar, amplifier, high-quality overcoat and hundreds of CDs remained untouched. In addition, said Harrington, all the missionaries' papers and correspondence had been looked through, and a water filter had been dismantled and searched: 'They were looking for specific items which could have suggested espionage.' Following the incident Harrington had spoken to various Russian nationals and legal representatives: 'They all think it is the FSB or some kind of Russian government agency'. (END)