RUSSIA: Why did police raid Pentecostal church?
Twenty masked special and plain clothes police raided an evening seminar on 14 April at the Word of Faith church in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia autonomous republic. Police forced the 70 people present outside, calling them "sectarians" and "prostitutes", while they searched the church. Nearly 50 church members were held for five hours at the police station and fingerprinted. Udmurtia's interior ministry claimed the Pentecostals had "distorted" details of the raid. Pentecostal bishop Yuri Degtyar told Forum 18 News Service from Izhevsk that he believes the public prosecutor has now "taken control of the situation" and that the investigation into police conduct during the raid will be "objective".
On 19 April the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice had questioned how, before the investigation had even started, Udmurtia public prosecutor Boris Sarnayev could announce to the press that "no police action aimed at humiliating people on religious grounds has been established".
Twenty masked special and plain clothes police officers burst into premises owned by its affiliate church, Word of Faith, on the evening of 14 April, breaking through a side-gate even though the main gates were open, the national Pentecostal union headed by Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky reported in a statement on 15 April. Shouting "Quick! We'll break your legs!" the officers directing the operation (one of whom was said to be drunk and brandishing a pistol) reportedly forced the approximately 70 people present, including pastors, worshippers and seminar participants, to stand facing an outside wall for approximately half an hour while both they and the building were searched. According to the union, the officers told Pastor Mikhail Russkikh that no search warrant was required after 6pm and repeatedly called church members "sectarians" and "prostitutes", before detaining 46 of those present in a single cell at the local police station for approximately five hours.
Interrogated individually, continued the statement, the detainees were all fingerprinted and photographed, some were told to sign blank witness statements and one was hit when he refused to answer questions. No formal police charges were reportedly made.
On 18 April the Interfax news agency reported a spokesman for Udmurtia's department of the Interior Ministry (which includes the police force) as insisting that the Pentecostal union had "distorted" events and vowing that his department would file suit against "a number of organisations and citizens" circulating information about the incident in the media if it proved unconfirmed by the public prosecutor's investigation.
Asked on 21 April how precisely the Pentecostal union statement had distorted events, a press spokesman at Udmurtia's Interior Ministry department directed Forum 18 to an 18 April statement on the Udmurtia state authorities' official website. This maintained that an Izhevsk district public prosecutor had issued a warrant for an urgent search of the church's premises in connection with the 9 April discovery not far from the building of a murdered man. The statement also claimed that both the murdered man and a man accused of the murder had lived at the church's premises from 2003 onwards. The murderer had placed his victim's possessions at the church's premises, continued the statement, and told police that a number of people with previous convictions lived there without registration. This, it stated, was what had led to the 14 April search and detention of 46 people, against 22 of whom administrative charges were brought for not having registration. (Russian citizens are required by law to register at any locality where they stay for more than 90 days.)
Bishop Degtyar insisted that in fact only 12 people present at the church's premises on 14 April did not have registration, being participants in Word of Faith's ex-convict rehabilitation project. "These twelve are people with difficult pasts trying to change their lives," he told Forum 18. "This was the only administrative violation, but it doesn't warrant police in masks scaring us all – there are civilised ways of conducting searches." In addition, he said, no mention of the murder investigation was made until several days after the search, and no one was questioned about it during the police interrogation. "The questions were rather: 'Why do you go to this church and not an Orthodox church?', 'How much money do you donate to your church?'"
In a statement published on the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice website on 19 April, Bishop Degtyar also explains that the man accused of the murder had last been seen at the church's rehabilitation centre approximately 18 months ago, and that the church had unfortunately not known that he was using a false identity or was wanted by police in other parts of the country, "otherwise we would have turned him in to the law-enforcement agencies ourselves." The murder victim had also not been seen at the centre for a long time, maintained the statement.
Work of Faith Church runs a number of social projects assisting the homeless, orphans and low-income families in addition to former convicts. "We are working to change society for the better," Bishop Degtyar told Forum 18. "We want it to be healthy and strong."
One night in July 2001, Dmitry Mafenko, then leader of the church's anti-drugs project, was kidnapped together with his assistant Pavel, and the pair have not been found since. While acknowledging that local drug dealers are opposed to the church's activity, Bishop Degtyar stressed to Forum 18 that there was no connection between this kidnapping and the 14 April raid, which he put down to "local police arbitrariness". The church has previously had no conflict with the police, he added: "We pray for the authorities – the incident was completely unexpected, and many people are still in shock about it."
For more background see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=509
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russi
18 April 2005
Lutheran Bishop Siegfried Springer and the 170 congregation-strong Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia are baffled by the annulling of his multi-entry visa at a Moscow airport on 10 April and his deportation back to Germany the following day. "I want to return to Russia to our general synod to resume my pastoral work as soon as possible," Springer told Forum 18 from the German town of Bad Sooden-Allendorf. Although born in Russia, the 75-year-old bishop is a German citizen. A foreign Catholic bishop who was similarly expelled from Russia in 2002 has never been allowed to return to his diocese.
14 April 2005
Russia's controversial 1997 Religion Law divides religious communities into two categories, restricting the rights of those with the unregistered status of "group", Forum 18 News Service notes in its submission to a 14 April hearing in Washington of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe http://www.csce.gov/ on unregistered religious groups in Russia. By requiring independent religious or belief groups seeking registration to have existed for 15 years, the Law effectively forced new individual religious or belief communities to join older unions, often a burdensome and expensive formality and not an option for some communities. Registration can be denied on arbitrary grounds, as for example with 39 of Stavropol region's 47 mosques. Denied registration, Belgorod's Catholic parish cannot reclaim its historical church. Communities that choose not to register can function freely, but only if they remain inconspicuous, Forum 18 has found. Council of Churches Baptists – who reject registration on principle – are often denied the possibility to rent property for services and fined for holding evangelistic campaigns.
30 March 2005
Old Believers in Samara have received no official response to requests for the return of their pre-1917 church building in the city. The municipal authorities orally told the parish that they should first meet representatives of the local Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) diocese to ascertain its archbishop's position on the issue. "As a lawyer, I know that this is not legal," Old Believer parishioner Irina Budkina told Forum 18 News Service, stating that archive documentation proves the church was built in 1913-15 by Belokrinitsa Old Believers and later confiscated: "It has nothing to do with the Moscow Patriarchate." In 2004, Samara city administration acquired the church after its previous occupant, a machine-tool factory, closed down. Sergei Vurgraft, the Church's press secretary, told Forum 18 that when Old Believer parishes request their historical buildings, the local state authorities often promise to return them "as long as they obtain confirmation that the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese is not opposed". Knowing this to be unconstitutional, officials normally do this orally, he told Forum 18.