RUSSIA: Urals Protestants kept out of sight?
Urals region Protestants sometimes encounter local state obstruction of evangelism, along with local state support of the Orthodox, but one local pastor told Forum 18 News Service that local authorities are, in the cases of Protestants who own their own buildings, "happy for us to do what we like in our own buildings." Local personal relationships have a key influence on the religious freedom situation, pastors in two areas telling Forum 18 that building and keeping church property was helped by their having good personal relationships with the authorities. Although local Orthodox opposition to local Protestants is strong, leading to media attacks, and in some cases physical attacks, one local commentator told Forum 18 that, "when people started to see the so-called 'sects' being helpful, their [negative] media image began to break down." Local Protestants have also found that negative campaigning by Orthodox has backfired, leading to the Orthodox gaining a negative public image.
Pastor Leonid Brodovsky added, however, that this has been the only option available to Protestant churches in Tyumen city (approximately 1,500km or 930 miles east of Moscow) since 1999, when ongoing rental contracts for worship services in state-owned cultural centres and cinemas were no longer permitted. Speaking to Forum 18 in Tyumen on 21 July, Pavel and Marina Gailans of "Greater Grace" Evangelical Church further commented that, while venues closed to religious organisations are cheap to rent, those available are prohibitively expensive. After their congregation was told in 1999 to leave the school premises which it had used for services outside class time, they said, it met in flats for 18 months until this became impractical. "Greater Grace" now meets at Brodovsky's Tyumen City Church, the Gailanses told Forum 18, as do several other Protestant churches without their own places of worship.
According to Brodovsky, those Protestant churches which do have their own buildings in Tyumen city acquired them in the 1990s, while no Protestant request for authorisation to construct a church building in the city centre has been approved in recent years. "The authorities say there is no space, or that a church can't have land in the centre as it has been here for fewer than ten years," he explained to Forum 18.
Asked about the allocation of city land to Protestant churches on 23 July, Aleksandr Gradusov, Tyumen region's religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the New Apostolic Church had completed a building in the city in 2003. A Jehovah's Witness congregation had also built Kingdom Hall in Tyumen, remarked Gradusov: "No one is looking to ban them here."
Forum 18 News Service also noted a new-looking Adventist church directly opposite the Orthodox Holy Trinity Monastery in Tyumen city centre.
Highlighting the key significance of local personal relationships for the religious freedom situation (See F18News 2 August 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=383), on 21 July Pastor Aleksandr Lepyokhin of "Word of Life" Baptist church in Tobolsk (200km or 125 miles north-east of Tyumen) said that his church had had no particular difficulty in building its prominent red-brick prayer house from 1994-98, while good relations with a public art institute allowed the congregation to use its premises prior to its completion. In the asbestos-mining town of Asbest (55km or 20 miles north-east of Yekaterinburg), Pastor Andrei Berdishchev similarly told Forum 18 on 18 July that, when local Orthodox queried why his "Love of Christ" Pentecostal Church had been allowed to occupy a former furniture shop in the town centre, the municipal authorities simply responded that it had been a lawful private sale.
All the Protestant representatives with whom Forum 18 spoke reported vocal Orthodox opposition to their activity. Pastor Aleksandr Lepyokhin, for example, described Orthodox demonstrating with anti-sect placards at Baptist showings of the "Jesus film," the advertising posters for which were often defaced with similar slogans. In 2001, a series of articles by an Orthodox journalist, in the "Vecherny Asbest" local newspaper, accused the "Love of Christ" Pentecostal Church of being a "totalitarian sect", purporting to have municipal status by displaying a sign describing itself as "Asbest City Church." Soon afterwards, Pastor Berdishchev told Forum 18, two local deputies and two Orthodox priests came and removed the sign from the church door (it has since been reinstated). In a separate incident, he added, "hooligans" smashed the windows of the church and beat up two of its members, saying during the attack that they had read about the "sectarians" in the local press.
Sverdlovsk regional religious affairs official until early 2004 and now head of the "Centre for Open Society" NGO, Tatyana Tagiyeva accused the local state authorities of passivity in the face of such opposition. "If a placard saying 'Sectarians out of Russia!' is not inciting religious hatred then what is? If you kill them?" she remarked to Forum 18 in Yekaterinburg on 18 July.
Protestant representatives also maintained to Forum 18 that the local authorities give preferential treatment to the Orthodox Church. In Tyumen, Pastor Leonid Brodovsky described how the Protestants' social service is never covered by the local state media, while "there are constant reports about the consecration of new Orthodox churches, or bells being hung up." When members of his Pentecostal church visit hospitals or prisons, he said, the administrations of these institutions often refuse to work with them, saying that they already have a contract with Tobolsk and Tyumen Orthodox diocese.
Tyumen regional religious affairs official Aleksandr Gradusov told Forum 18 that religious organisations "do their own thing" in the social sphere, and maintained that the Tyumen regional authorities do not have any official agreements with religious organisations in that area, "unfortunately." In the May edition of Tobolsk and Tyumen diocesan newspaper, however, Archbishop Dimitri (Kapalin) outlines recent examples of Orthodox collaboration with the local authorities while castigating "a new crusade against Russia by numerous sectarians, financed by foreign centres" in his address to President Vladimir Putin and representatives of Russia's Northern Territories at the latter's April 2004 congress. The newspaper states that it is partially published with financial support from Tyumen regional administration.
In Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) region, the local media broadcasts Orthodox bulletins almost daily, while a 19 May 2004 regional decree transfered the remaining building cost of the Church-on-the-Blood (a 60-metre-high Orthodox cathedral completed in 2003 on the site of the 1918 martyrdom of the Russian royal family at a cost of almost 368 million roubles [85,511,053 Norwegian Kroner, 10,256,704 Euros, or 12,581,612 US Dollars]) onto the region's state public accounts.
Despite this state of affairs, Tatyana Tagiyeva referred Forum 18 to recent indications of a slight change in public attitudes towards Protestant churches. "When people started to see the so-called 'sects' being helpful, their [negative] media image began to break down." The "Love of Christ" Pentecostal Church is indeed finding that its projects to help street children, alcoholics and drug addicts are "opening doors," Pastor Andrei Berdishchev told Forum 18, citing several examples when local state representatives who have either had relatives assisted by the projects or who work in the social sphere came round to support the church's activity.
Berdishchev also noted changes in the town's attitude towards Orthodox activity, such as: complaints by readers "simply bored" by a series of 'anti-sect' articles in 2001 in the now-defunct "Vecherny Asbest" newspaper; the frustration of Asbest's mayor's office and of the passport department at numerous refusals by local Orthodox to accept an individual taxpayer's number and new passports; and Orthodox criticism of Protestants as enjoying generous foreign support appearing hollow, after a local Orthodox parish advertised a substantial donation to its new roof.
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2 August 2004
Religious freedom in the Urals varies widely, even from village to village, restrictions being most common on public events with an evangelical purpose, Baptist and Pentecostal leaders have recently told Forum 18 News Service. Some local officials are very supportive of such events, and also of social care projects such as anti-drug initiatives, but one pastor estimated that over 50 per cent of local officials are hostile to any event run by Protestants. One local religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the problem is that churches have poor legal knowledge and said that his office is "open to dialogue". But a former religious affairs official told Forum 18 that close relationships between higher level politicians and the Moscow Patriarchate stopped lower officials working with Protestant churches. "Even if they could really do with a social project, they know that an Orthodox priest will kick up a fuss, and no fool would risk his career by being linked with support for a Protestant church."
30 July 2004
In what he describes as "a vicious circle", Baptist Vsevolod Kalinin has again been refused a residence permit to live in his own home in the capital Tashkent, Forum 18 News Service has been told. In an open court hearing, a representative of the commission of the Tashkent city administration responsible for residence permits said that Kalinin's religious convictions were the main reason for refusing him a residence permit. It is unusual for Uzbek authorities to take a close interest in residential addresses, but Kalinin has since 2002 been the target of close scrutiny by authorities in Tashkent. As well as visits from the police, a military recruitment office has told Kalinin that he could be detained while his place of residence was checked. All Kalinin's appeals, including to Uzbek president Karimov, are met with the reply that he should appeal again to the commission which denied him a residence permit.
27 July 2004
Since 1996, Jehovah's Witnesses have held an annual Urals regional congress in the Yekaterinburg city stadium. But last Friday (23 July), the stadium management abruptly demanded four times the agreed fee, then, on Saturday, men claiming to be security guards tried to block the entrance, then the electricity supply was switched off, then 1,000 delegates were evicted from their accommodation, then the stadium management played loud music to drown out speakers, and finally the management with the security guards told delegates to disperse. Jehovah's Witness leaders then called off the congress. In April, the authorities in the neighbouring Urals region of Tyumen cancelled a similarly large-scale Protestant Easter service in a city stadium. Also in April, the Jehovah's Witness Yekaterinburg congregation had its rental contract with the 'house of culture' abruptly cancelled, following the court decision barring Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow 1,500 km (930 miles) west.