M o s c o w – The businessman Alexander Semchenko and the leadership of the „Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ parted ways in February 2008. The RUECB is still coming to terms with that development. After Semchenko mobilised the security forces of his “Teplotechnik” construction firm to disperse an impromptu camp put up by “greens” protesting the destruction of a forest (see our release from 18.8.2010), the personal dispute between him and Yuri Sipko, until March 2010 President of the RUECB, became public. On 8 October 2010 in the dissident-Orthodox news service “Portal-Credo”, the Ex-President labelled it “nonsense” that an industrialist could serve simultaneously as bishop. (Semchenko has served as bishop of the small “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians” since 2008.) Regarding Semchenko’s church staff Sipko stated at that time: “Dozens of sanctified teachers of the Gospel are feeding from his hand. The rattle of money drowns out conscience. This black stain burdens the proclaimers of the Gospel.“ Sipko followed up with two interviews in Portal-Credo on 16 and 28 September 2011; Semchenko responded critically in print for the first time in an interview with this news agency on 6 October 2011.
Many of Russia’s dissatisfied regard Yuri Sipko as a fearless and prophetic voice. Portal-Credo stated in its interview with Semchenko on 6 October: “Russian society is still awaiting statements of truth, morality and political maturity from its religious leaders. Pastor Sipko is expressing himself in precisely such a prophetic manner.” Yet Semchenko, who may be Russia’s only Protestant oligarch, retorted: “All of his speeches reveal only one thing: resentment.” He regards himself to be “the great leader of a great Protestant union”, yet government authorities have “refrained from seeking contact with him”. Sipko himself admitted to being no confidant of the mighty and stated in one of his interviews: “I observe political developments a bit from home.”
The position of fundamental opposition, which Sipko represents, is evident in his interview from 28 September four days after Vladimir Putin had made public his intention to candidate anew for the position of State President.´ He slammed the competition between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev as pre-arranged collusion and “theatre” and concluded: “For Putin and Medvedev, untruth is a fundamental means of state governance.” He continued: “A person without values has no right to lead a state. Both of these guys in tandem have forfeited all rightful claims to power.”
In the interview a year ago Sipko had maintained: “Those who are wealthy in Russia are also thieves. Russia’s wealthy are dishonest; they are fraudsters and liars. One thief fights another thief; one criminal protects himself from other criminals. This is true for all of Russia’s wealthy – also for those who claim to represent the nation’s spirit, honour and conscience.” Regarding the disenfranchised he claimed a year later: “Those who don’t die, emigrate.” But the former president also appeals to the spiritual as a solution for the national crisis: “All of us are in need of conversion. I believe in God’s mercy.”
Semchenko’s rejoinder on 6 October sounded statesmanlike. The entrepreneur claimed to be incapable of responding to accusations such as „political theatre“. He also saw charges of “lying” as an unacceptable generalisation. After all, politicians of consequence can only more-or-less express the naked truth. Accusing a politician of lying is usually a “very, very subjective” claim.
Sipko listed in his statements the respected opposition politicians who have been neutralised by Putin’s ruling party. But Semchenko responded by claiming the Duma hosts no opposition party palatable to Protestants, describing the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and communist party boss Gennady Zyuganov as “horrible”. Semchenko saw Boris Yeltsin as a sympathetic person, “who nevertheless proved weak as a politician” and nearly cost the Russians their country. Semchenko added one more point in his interview of 6 October: “I view Putin as a great blessing for Russia. He is a symbol of stability and progress.”
This church philanthropist expects little good from the current opposition forces: “The opposition is united above all by its rejection and hatred of government structures.” Protestants are themselves co-responsible for their poor relationship with state offices. In contrast to the Orthodox, they have „failed to formulate their relationship to the state“. The industrialist added that one could “hardly accuse me inactivity, for I above all others have engaged the state the most frequently and most concretely”. He often supports his claim to not being an opportunist by pointing out the fact that he had been imprisoned – in contrast to Sipko – during the Soviet period (1982).
He and the Charismatic Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the 2.000-congregation-strong “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith”, see it as their task to woo state circles for the benefit for the country’s small and barely-visible Protestant movement. “We are leading a great movement for unification among Russian Protestants.” Protestant churches should become attractive and constructive partners for government circles. “But that does not mean that we simply succumb to state authority and fulfil all of its quirks and demands.”
The businessman concluded: „Our government does not intend to liquidate Protestantism.” The primary problem are fresh, overly-eager converts to Orthodoxy who believe they can best serve the church by “roughing up the physiology of a Protestant pastor”. They seem incapable of more complex approaches. On the differences within Protestant circles and their relationship to society he stated: “Unfortunately, in Russia the culture of dialogue is still strongly underdeveloped. We must therefore begin to listen to and comprehend one another.”
The current RUECB-leadership, which is headed by Alexey Smirnov, operates more tactfully than either of these two rivals. Senior Vice-President Evegeny Bakhmutsky has called repeatedly for abstinence on political statements. Vitaly Vlasenko, its Director for External Church Relations, states: “We desire to continue our efforts to build bridges to government and Orthodox circles.”
Semchenko´s most recent projects
Months ago, the Moscow Patriarchate announced its plan to construct 600 new churches in Moscow region. Following vehement local protests and government misgivings, the number was reduced to 200. At present, the hammers are resounding at 18 new building sites. On 4 October, the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill thanked the “Teplotechnik” firm for “being not only the primary building contractor, but also the primary sponsor of the new church building in Veshnyaki”. The entrepreneur Semchenko is undoubtedly attempting to construct new bridges in ways which only he can muster.
Despite financial squeezes among his own church staff, Semchenko has also made a substantial contribution to Portal-Credo. Until now, this news agency has been allied much more closely with the political position of Ex-President Sipko.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 31 October 2011
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-22, 1.092 words, 7.184 keystrokes and spaces.
A further note
The “Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (EAF) voted at its annual conference in Kiev on 18-19 October to accept a new Baptist union from Georgia as member. It consists of 24 congregations; its official, founding convention is to take place on Georgian soil in November 2012. Georgia already has the long-time “Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia”, which is headed by Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili and consists of 75 congregations. This new union intends to be more traditional and Slavic than its counterpart. For now, it appears that one Georgian union will be belonging to the EAF, the other, the church of Songulashvili, is a part of the Prague-based “European Baptist Federation”. (The primary Baptist unions of Ukraine and Russia belong to both.)
Down but Not Out..
Hopes for Kobrin’s “Baptist House of Mercy” are far from dead
M o s c o w / K o b r i n – Sixteen months after its official opening, Eastern Europe’s largest Protestant-run home for the aged is still waiting on its first resident. On 26 June 2010, the “Baptist House of Mercy” had been officially dedicated in the village of Imenin near Kobrin/Belarus. Supporters of a network of Baptist retirement homes in Missouri had spent over $400.000 for the construction of a magnificent retirement centre with room for 54 residents. Present at the dedication were 52 of those US-supporters.
Local government officials are anxious to see the home opened. In a meeting with a delegation from Missouri on 3 October 2011, Valentin Trubchik, responsible for religious affairs in Kobrin region, insisted: “Please let us know how we could be of help. If your waiting list is too short, then we can supply you with a list of our own.“ He assured that local authorities have given clearance for the House of Mercy to use as much as 90% of its residents’ pensions towards the costs of care.
A bakery funded by Germans and opened next-door in early 2011 is no longer wafting warm smells into the early morning air. Its temporary closure is attributed to the cost of flour. The socialist government of Belarus controls the price of bread and private bakers cannot compete. The “mastermind” behind both the home for the aged and the bakery, the Baptist builder Stepan Trubchik (not related to Valentin), assured: “We can restart baking as soon as we find free or nearly-free flour in a reasonable location.” In general, the 1995-founded “Zhemchuzhinka” (Little Pearl) children’s camp, on whose territory both the home and bakery are located, is not faring well. Both its agricultural production and the number of camp sessions are down.
During the early-October meetings in Kobrin, Steven Jones (Ironton), the President of “Missouri Baptist Home”, stated: “I believe that management issues have been the primary cause for this delay.” He and Roger Hatfield, President of the Jefferson City/Missouri-based “Future Leadership Foundation”, expressed the conviction that the establishment of a strong board of directors would lighten the load of “Zhemchuzhinka’s” camp director, Rev. Vladimir Vandich. “It is not fair if all the responsibility for sensitive programme decisions rests on the shoulders of Brother Vandich,” Jones added. “The Board must carry the primary responsibility.”
During meetings in Minsk on 4 October, Board Chair Yosef Rakhkovsky, a Vice-President of the Belarus Baptist Union, and Nikolay Sinkovets, this Union’s General-Secretary, confirmed their support for the House of Mercy project. Jones reported later: “Both agreed that not fulfilling the House’s mission would have serious consequences for the Belarusian Baptist Union in its desire to gain support for future projects both within and outside of the country. In addition, Christians have a Biblical mandate to take care of the neediest of older adults, especially those who have neither family nor resources.”
The political will of Baptist circles to get involved in social-diaconic projects has been weak at times. A major concern is that social projects may occur at the expense of evangelistic efforts. On 28 June for ex., the website of Moscow’s “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” published an interview critical of church social work entitled “The Road to Nowhere?”. RUECB-historian Alexander Sinichkin expressed the fear that successful Baptist social work among mostly lower-class drug addicts has cut into Baptist efforts to reach Russia’s emerging middle class.
Over the past two decades, East Europeans have tended to agree quickly to Western-proposed projects without tallying the total costs. An example for this was the explosion of seminary openings in the 1990s. A Belarusian example of this could be the House of Mercy. But since its dedication over a year ago, cost projections have become more realistic. One had then assumed that costs could be covered by the residents’ pensions. Home leadership now assumes costs of $9 US per day per resident – only a third of which would be covered by an average pension. This would mean an annual shortfall of $80.000 for 35 residents. But Jones is convinced that financial and material donation capacities among the Baptists of Western Belarus are far from exhausted: 40% of Belarus Baptist Union’s 13.900 members reside in Brest region, to which Kobrin also belongs.
Missouri leadership believes Stepan Trubchik, who also serves as the House of Mercy’s director, has proven to be a genius at cutting costs. A Roman-Catholic home for the aged with room for 40 residents in Logishin near Pinsk in southwestern Belarus is reported to have cost well over $2 million. Opened in June of this year, this institution claims to be Belarus’ first non-government home for the aged.
Jones, who visited Logishin at the outset of October, believes the delayed opening of the Baptist centre is no cause for undue concern. Leadership of the Logishin centre reported that it had required more than four years to take the necessary bureaucratic hurdles. Stepan Trubchik now believes that Kobrin will be up-and-running no later than May 2012 – other leaders are reckoning with no more than three or four more months.
The Future Leadership Foundation’s efforts in the realm of Christian care for the aged are not limited to Belarus. It is now also helping to develop a Masters programme specialising in senior adult ministries at „Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary“ in Borislav (Western Ukraine). This is to occur in cooperation with this seminary’s Academic Dean, Slavic Ryzh. Ryzh is presently involved in doctoral studies at „Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary“ in Dallas/Texas.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 10 October 2011
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-20, 907 words, 5.714 keystrokes and spaces.
Following Your Ears to Church
Comparing three of Moscow’s newest Baptist congregations
M o s c o w -- Russia is famous for doing without signs or route pointers. That’s especially true (voluntarily or otherwise) of Protestant meeting places.
1. One very young Moscow congregation has solved the problem in a unique fashion. All it takes to locate “Moscow City Church” (MCC) is to follow one’s ears into Hotel Milan in south Moscow. At 11,00 on a Sunday morning the music will be resonating from the second floor – one simply takes the steps upward and opens the door where the beat sounds loudest. It will open to reveal a small auditorium with stage. Roughly 60 persons will be in attendance – hardly anyone over the age of 35. This congregation is only a year old and matters such as acoustic volume appear to be left to the discretion of the bandleader. The band’s leader, the keyboarder, also plays a terrific sax. On the Sunday I was there, Communion was served at the outset of the service to the sound of very lively music.
The preacher of the day delivered his sermon sans tie and in jeans. His question-and-answer sermon was punctured with “Amens” and raised hands. This is one of the very few Baptist churches of Russia which watch the clock. The one-and-only sermon lasted 31 minutes and the final song was over 80 minutes after the start of the service. (Perhaps the price of hotel space contributes to that brevity.)
This youthful congregation is an outgrowth of the Campus Crusade for Christ’s student ministry. (But the graduates of a drug-rehab programme form an important second segment.) Campus has been active in Russia since 1991; Vitaly Vlasenko, head of the pastoral team, spent more than a decade with that organization. This congregation takes to heart a teaching propagated by Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church: “The bait must be tasty to the fish, not the fisherman.” It’s not the tastes of the old-time churchgoers that matter most.
2. Events are more staid at the three-year-old “Your Church” congregation meeting at the RUECB’s (Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist) “Moscow Theological Seminary” in the east of the city. The music is contemporary, but its musicians still believe in three- and four-part harmony. The worship team consists primarily of members of the Ukrainian “Zhivaya Kaplya” (Living Drop) music group. When Yevgeny Goncharenko’s classical-church music courses are in session at Second Baptist Church, its semi-professional musicians do guest appearances.
Things are more festive here: Head Pastor Leonid Kartavenko may wear a ministerial collar and white sash. At least one of Your Church’s two-or-so sermons will be conversational in nature – Rev. Kartavenko is a gifted communicator. All generations are present, but Pastor Kartavenko insists: “We are a church mostly for the middle-aged.” The theology is inclusive. “We do not necessarily rebaptise those who believe they were sincere when they were initially baptised, say, as Orthodox.” He notes that in old times, unregistered Baptists even rebaptised those who had arrived from other Baptist quarters.
“Growing is hard work”, the Head Pastor adds. Membership is around 80 and increasing slowly. But I noted during a recent visit that the congregation sported many new faces: Some of those who had come from Second Baptist Church to help get things started have apparently felt free to return to their home congregation. Your Church appears in full operation. Of the three congregations listed here, only Kartavenko is able to serve nearly full-time as a pastor.
3. A third congregation also sports Second Baptist roots: Yevgeny Bakhmutsky’s “Russian Bible Church” (RBC), now meeting in the RUECB’s central offices on Varshavskoe Shosse. A cello replaces the brass instruments here; the music is contemporary, but subdued. Again roughly 80 members, but many more participants and guests. The congregation may have the youngest average age – few persons are over the age of 30 with more than a few children. But one active member, insists: “We are in no way trying to avoid older people.” Bakhmutsky, who was until recently Director of the RUECB’s national youth division, recruited many of his primary staff through his youth contacts.
Strong emphasis is placed on the spoken word; expository preaching is the order of the day. At least one of the two sermons lasts from 50 to 60 minutes; services take at least two hours. Much in the style of groups such as “Calvary Chapel”, books of the Bible are preached through from beginning to end, chapter-by-chapter. The Bible is regarded as infallible on all topics, including science. Here the “sufficiency” of Scripture is a key theological term.
A great rarity: The congregation has more male than female members. The congregation stresses male leadership and has four ordained, male pastors. A member recalls: “Before the congregation was founded two years ago, Bakhmutsky spent a year discipling a core group of young men and women.” Stress is placed on thorough planning and organisation; every active participant is asked to find his/her personal ministry and task.
The services devote time to prayer – prayer for the nation and its leaders coupled with the prayers for one’s own circle of acquaintances and family members.
How the three groups compare
Despite their many commonalities, these three congregations differ in flavour and style. The music is loudest at MCC, calmest at RBC. Your Church offers women the greatest opportunities for leadership; RBC stresses male authority. Leonid Kartavenko believes his congregation has horizontal leadership structures; RBC stresses leadership by a team of male elders.
All three groups are adamantly evangelical, yet it is a matter of debate as to which group most resembles traditional Russian-Baptist theology. Though aspects of RBC reflect the historical Russian model – its decidedly, non-charismatic orientation for ex. -, its Calvinist theology veers from the classical model. RBC is at least the most traditional in form.
All three groups stress a “professional”, well-prepared worship service. Electronics, AV and the Internet are taken seriously. Kartavenko reports that the majority of those watching his congregation’s services do so via the Internet (www.yourchurch.ru). RBC (www.rbcerkov.ru) offers its sermons as downloadable mp3-files. MCC’s site (Church24.ru) needs the most work – but they are also the youngest of the three congregations.
In all three cases, the gathering is far from over following the final “Amen”. Great stress is placed on getting acquainted. The “snack” offered at Your Church following the service usually suffices for both lunch and supper. All three take the business of fishing seriously. Winning persons “off the street” and not weaning believers away from other congregations is stressed. More than a few new members have Orthodox connections. Street evangelism is still somewhat possible in Russia: In the course of a week beginning on 4 September 2011, RBC recited the entire Bible in Moscow’s pedestrian zone “Arbat”. All three groups feature attractive excursions for the young including boat cruises, summer camps, English camps and picnics. One Your Church excursion even included parachute-jumping.
Last but not least: None of these three congregations have the word “Baptist” in their names. Yet all assure that they are not ashamed of the word “Baptist”. These congregations desire to be inclusive: They all desire to win and include those who do not want to describe themselves as Baptist. Balkmutsky explains that his congregation also wants to partner with newer congregations who have never called themselves “Baptist”. Nevertheless, all three congregations are led by past or present department heads at the RUECB’s Moscow headquarters. Vlasenko heads the RUECB’s Department for External Church Affairs; Bakhmutsky is the Union’s Senior Vice-President. Kartavenko headed its Missions Department until February 2008 and is now allied with the ex-Baptist, Evangelical-Christian businessman Alexander Semchenko. Yet Your Church remains a RUECB-member.
Many of the practices these congregations are attempting to implement were first introduced by Russia’s Charismatic movement in the 1990’s: a contemporary style of worship, youth orientation and decentralized leadership. A fourth, very large Charismatic congregation, “Tushino Evangelical Church”, retains strong past (and future?) Baptist ties. (See our press release of 16 October 2009.)
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 20 September 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-18, 1.315 words, 8.404 keystrokes and spaces.
13 August – A Day of Multiple Commemorations
Regarding the Russian “Initiativniki’s” anniversary
M o s c o w -- Two separations significant for World Christendom commemorated their 50th birthdays on 13 August: the construction of the Berlin Wall and the splitting up of the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. On 18 August, in one of two major Russian-language commentaries on the second event, Kiev’s Mikhail Cherenkov celebrated in the news service “Protestant” the maverick and courageous spirit of the underground, “Initiativniki” Baptist movement. He described them as a “mighty spiritual” and “radical reformist” movement and exclaimed: No one could have expected that an “anti-church directive” put out by the All-Union Council could “invoke such massive resistance on the local-church level”. Who would have reckoned that “simple, uneducated, inexperienced pastors from the most remote of provinces could organise a resistance movement capable of engulfing the entire Soviet Union?” Cherenkov compares its martyrs to the early church fathers who died with “For Christ alone!” on their lips. The Initiativniki were in any case also part of the “down with Moscow” sentiment still alive in the wide expanses of Russia.
But it must be remembered that the Initiativniki movement also fought other Baptists. Andreas Patz reported in Germany’s Russian-language “International Christian Newspaper” on 11 August that the Initiativniki front began to unravel only two years after its founding. Initiativniki non-cooperation at an all-Union “synod” in 1963 and ugly scenes in congregations thereafter prompted many to leave its ranks. An autonomous Baptist movement apart from both the Baptist Union and the Initiativniki – Patz calls it an “opposition to the opposition” - appeared. Today, the Protestant scene in not a few Russian towns - Stary Oskol and Dedovsk (near Moscow) for ex. - consists primarily of such autonomous Baptist groupings.
A blogger noted that despite Gennady Kryuchkov’s warnings, lower-level “fraternisation” between registered and non-registered Baptists never ceased, especially in the realm of underground “Samizdat” printing. Kryuchkov (1926-2007) headed the Initiativniki in Russia proper from 1965 until his death 42 years later. His “underground church” was initially known as the “Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. After massive emigration, it was renamed the "International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists" (IUCECB). It recently reported a global membership of 78.015 – roughly 20.000 of them still residing on Russian soil. During its heyday (1966), the movement claimed as many as 155.000 members.
Patz’ commentary describes well the pain and price of division. He reports that after 1961, roughly 1.500 Baptists (these would include registered and unregistered Pentecostals and Mennonites) were sentenced to a total of 5.000 years in prison. This works out to an average sentence of 3,33 years; thirty of these persons also died in jail.
The Initiativniki are an impressive testimony to the stalwartness of the human spirit in the face of incredible odds. But wars, including religious ones, also cause collateral damage – among children, for ex. The patriarch Kryuchkov lived underground on the run from Soviet authorities from 1970 to 1990. Even IUECB-circles admit today that none of his nine children are in the Christian fold.
The anti-semite Alexander Prokhanov, perhaps Russia’s most prominent far-right writer, is chief editor of the ultra-nationalist „Zavtra“ magazine. “Wikipedia” reports that he and a colleague invited the US-Nazi Donald Duke to Russia in 1999. Alexander is the grandson of Ivan Prokhanov, a leading father of Russia’s Baptist and Evangelical-Christian communities. But Alexander’s convictions cannot be blamed on Ivan, for Grandpa died in 1935, three years prior to the grandson’s birth. But this aside is one indication of the fact that “once-Baptist-always-Baptist” does not reflect Soviet and Russian reality. More than a few of today’s Russian intellectuals and politicians have one-time Baptist connections.
Patz reports that the Great Division of 1961 turned long-time friends and relatives into „irreconcilable enemies“. Married couples suddenly found themselves on opposite sides of the fence, their children confused as to with whom they should attend church. “At home, children were subjected to the constant quarrelling of their parents. Disappointed, they went out into the world once they were grown. And how many of these families were driven into divorce and destruction?”
The current situation
Today, the IUECB’s adherents, the majority of whom now live in Germany and the US’ Pacific Northwest, appear to reflect a movement frozen in time. The demise of the aggressive, Soviet adversary has condemned them to insignificance in the public arena. Yet much like their cousins, the Russian Orthodox Old Believers, who broke with the majority church in 1666, they insist on an aged agenda of minimal interest to today’s secular societies. Yet biology will keep the movement going as long as at least of few of its many offspring continue to uphold the faith. Much like the North American Amish of Mennonite tradition, they will be of interest primarily to ethnologists and curiosity-seeking tourists. Few outsiders will consider them worthy of emulation. Non-Russian, North American missions present in Russia during the past two decades dismissed them entirely.
Resistance to authority is at the core of their belief. To accept a conciliatory position would destroy their reason to exist as a separate entity. Patz reports that the IUECB’s “Historical-Analytical Department”, now run by those too young to ever “have sat” or “been betrayed”, has retained the methods, accusations - and mistakes - of the past. Consequently, the gulf of the past half-century is on the increase.
Patz cites a speech by Gennady Kryuchkov at the IUECB’s major Tula gathering of 5-6 October 2005, in which he described the registered Baptists (today’s “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” – RUECB) as the “broad way”, and the way of his movement as the narrow one. He added: “And these two parallel paths will never cross even in eternity.” Kryuchkov was apparently claiming there would be only one kind of Russian Baptist in paradise – not, that the division of 1961 would extend into heaven.
Cherenkov, though heaping the Initiativniki with praise at the outset of his article, admits later that the movement has lost its positive passion. It has now turned to “solidifying its structures of control and its nearly canonical traditions with its own gallery of heroic fathers and an iconostasis of martyrs”. It has surrounded all of this with “a protective iron curtain”. The “absence of inter-church dialogue” has kept the movement from updating its convictions to confront the dangers of the present; the course of the Initiativniki has consequently ended in a dead-end street. “It’s an irony of history that a reforming impulse very rarely springs from the same source twice.”
Mikhail Cherenkov portrays the IUECB as a progressive movement turned reactionary. I would prefer to describe the Initiativniki of 1961 as a “conservative resurgence” akin to the movement within America’s “Southern Baptist Convention” two decades later. The Initiativniki did not uphold progressive values, but were instead intent on restoring the past. It could be argued that they did not even uphold the banner of religious freedom when it involved those not of their own particular brand of faith.
Even the best of intentions can lead to the saddest of outcomes – the Initiativniki movement could therefore be described as a tragic one. They believed in their love of Christ and his Word – yet their actions have been interpreted as evidence of hatred by others. One’s desire for purity and steadfastness can be understood as contempt of other positions. The Initiativniki’s witness hit a low point when a Ukrainian couple in Salem, Oregon/USA was imprisoned in late 2009 for physical abuse of its children. The IUECB chose to decry the sentence as religious persecution.
It is important to understand why Germany’s émigré-German-Russian church community is strewn across the landscape. “Idea” magazine’s Helmut Matthies has described each tiny grouping of congregations as beholden only to itself. Cooperation on a larger scale appears impossible. The Initiativniki have proven strong on remaining true to their convictions; they are much less skilled in living alongside those who think differently. They sin differently than we Westerners do, for they have been shaped by a very different past.
The Cold-War West tended to portray the Initiativniki as spiritual giants – at least until they emigrated westward. Yet they have proven to be mere mortals; it is a myth that repression automatically makes believers more angelic. Perhaps it is pride combined with fear that has forced their witness to self-destruct. In Norway a century ago, an Arctic balloonist and explorer was determined not to renege on any of his boasts. He chose instead to float northward toward a certain and frigid death. On occasion, groups are not humble enough to save their own skins. Tragically, pride may have cost the Initiativniki the fruits of their courage and suffering: “Pride cometh before the fall” (Proverbs 16,18).
Walls and divisions are a product of human sin; only a spirit of forgiveness could turn things around. A church division caused by state repression and internal sin smashed Humpty’s egg. Only forgiveness could restore that egg. Limiting sin to others, to other specific groups, places and times, is always a dead-end. The Initiativniki too are mere humans.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 31 August 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-16, 1.495 words, 9.682 keystrokes and spaces.
Searching for a Peaceful Graveyard
For Kyrgyz Protestants, the future remains full of questions
Bad Blankenburg/Germany – No ethnic-Kyrgyz Christian has been a believer for more than two decades, yet already 20% of the country’s Baptists are Kyrgyz. But where are these new believers in Christ to be buried? The nation’s customs dictate that the deceased be buried in the vicinity of their relatives. Yet those confessing Christ are as a rule disowned by their families and stripped of their ancestral home and place of burial. In several instances, the bodies of deceased believers have needed to be reburied or even buried in secret. At this year’s annual conference of the German Evangelical Alliance in Bad Blankenburg, a representative of the Kyrgyz Alliance assured that his organisation has taken on this unusual task: “We are in negotiations with the government about obtaining a piece of property on which Protestant believers can be buried.”
Kyrgyz Protestants are anticipating the elections set for 30 October with fear and trembling. The guest in Bad Blankenburg explained: “If the election victor is not clear already before the elections, then the possibility of resolving the issue by force is high.” Both Russia and the USA hold military bases in this strategically vital country – Kyrgyzstan’s political future could well be determined by the upcoming foreign-policy decisions of its leaders.
In Blankenburg, this Kyrgyz citizen of Korean nationality assured that his country’s official president, Rosa Otunbayeva, was only a symbolic figure without political power. He described her as “uneducated” and stated flatly: “I do not respect her as a politician.” Dr. Otunbayeva is a friend of Oslo/Norway’s Lutheran Bishop Emeritus Gunnar Stalsett. It was therefore possible for the „European Council of Religious Leaders“, which Stalsett heads, to visit the country in January and begin efforts to create an inter-religious council. Even the Kyrgyz Baptist Union was won over to the cause, yet the Alliance representative visiting Germany regards the effort as hopeless. “Both Muslims and the Orthodox see themselves as the country’s Number One – they will not reach agreement among themselves. They also will not tolerate a third Protestant power bloc beyond their own.”
Lofty ideals are not a factor, the guest assured. Since the revolution of April 2010 brought down the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the mafia has moved into the limelight. “Prices are skyrocketing; the economy is weakening; everything can be purchased for a price; everyone deals with his own form of chaos.” State officials are now demanding payment for services – the registration of a congregation for ex. – that are free-of-charge according to the constitution. Yet the autonomous, evangelical church which the Alliance representative heads refuses to pay bribes: “We don’t pay any taxes either,” he added. “According to the constitution, churches are separate from the state and consequently tax-free.” Yet this consequent position is repeatedly undercut by missionaries from South Korea, who attempt to further their missionary work by paying bribes. “This causes the mafia to conclude that all Protestants are financially capable of paying.” After these missionaries have returned home, local Protestants are forced to deal with the increased expectations of the bribe-takers. The Alliance’s representative described the solution as follows: “Only missionaries with a religious visa should plant congregations. Those entering Kyrgyzstan on a student or business visa should restrict themselves to their official tasks.”
The guest in Germany described his country’s religious legislation, passed in late 2008, as the most radical in all of Central Asia. It makes the registration of new congregations virtually impossible; juveniles and children are to be kept away from all religious meetings. Yet the country’s political instability has distracted its politicians – there were always matters more important than repressing the small Protestant denominations with a total membership of no more than 10.000. “We don’t yet have any experience with these new laws,” the Alliance representative explained. “They are only now beginning to enforce this legislation.” Being that ever more bureaucratic hurdles multiply the opportunities for state bureaucrats to demand bribes, this new law should open the floodgates to corruption in all of its many forms.
Remaining in a country where one is not welcome is no easy task. That is one of the reasons why Protestant congregations are also suffering from the massive exodus. Only a fraction of the country’s ethnic Koreans (now numbering roughly 15.000) remain – they formed a major part of Kyrgyzstan’s intellectual elite. Since 1987, the number of Baptists has dived from 13.000 to less than 3.000. “We cannot tell our people that they must stay,” the guest from Bishkek assured. “I do not feel myself in a position to contradict them when they claim that God is instructing them to leave.“ Once, 45% of Kyrgyzstan’s population was Russian – that number is now down to 9,1%. Sixty-nine percent of the population of 5,48 million is ethnic Kyrgyz. Half of the Uzbeks residing in the southern region of Osh have emigrated. An ethnic civil war engulfed that area in the summer of 2010.
Regarding the Alliance
Kyrgyzstan’s Evangelical Alliance, which was founded in November 2006, can be understood as the administrative arm of the even broader “Association”. The Alliance enjoys the services of a professional barrister and goes to bat for the rights of Protestants as needed. The guest explained: “We help churches to get registered with the state. We also see to it that their documentation in order.” Only the Alliance is officially registered.
The country’s small remnant Lutheran church belongs only to the Association. The traditional Pentecostal union is a member of both, but the largest Charismatic congregation in the capital city of Bishkek, the “Church of Jesus Christ”, was expelled from the two organisations because of moral infractions.
When thinking about the future, Kyrgyz Protestants feel they can rely strictly on the grace of God. “We’re praying for a miracle,” the friendly young pastor from Bishkek concluded.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 23 August 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-15, 959 words, 6.138 keystrokes and spaces.
Penicillin or Cyanide?
A commentary on Slavic, anti-gay activities in the USA and Russia
M o s c o w -- Russia's Christians are up in arms about the European Union's demand of equal rights for sexual minorities. In a statement on 22 June, the ever-vocal Sergey Ryakhovsky, Senior Bishop of the Charismatic "Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith (ROSKhVE), asserted that the rights of sexual minorities are not covered by the "Universal Declaration on Human Rights" passed by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. He described these minority rights as "the right to perversion and criminal immorality". The statement on 22 June emphatically affirmed a paper by the Russian Orthodox Church entitled "On the Right to Critically Assess and Legally Limit Homosexuality" made public only the previous day. Regarding Russian state backing, Ryakhovsky wrote: "We are proud of our government for refusing to support the European Union's perverse and vile handiwork. Our culture has never given sexual perversion any space." He also denounced Western pressure on Russian mayors and legislators to permit gay parades and formulate laws favourable to sexual minorities.
Ryakhovsky's issued his statement jointly with his deputy, Bishop Konstantin Bendas, who signed on as "President of the public movement 'For a Future without Homosexuality'". Especially in Western Europe, the title of this roughly two-year-old organization awakens the most frightening of associations. It is common knowledge whom the Nazis attempted to extinguish along with the Jews and Roma. Eliminating homosexuality simply by switching homosexuals into heterosexuals and leaving all alive is unrealistic. Homosexuality has been with us nearly as long as Adam.
The Russian public has needed to endure some of the cruellest and most vulgar of statements. Obviously, homophobia (irrational fear and hatred) and xenophobia stem from the vilest and darkest corners of human nature - from the cauldron that fascism also sprang. So is the Holy Spirit driving the anti-gay movement, or is it instead an expression of the vilest depths of human nature? Or could it be driven by both - by two completely separate and independent streams? The border between the two appears both thin and porous. In ethical terms, anti-gay Christian activists are treading on very thin ice.
In late May, "RIA-Novosti" fired its Moscow commentator Nikolay Troitsky after he called for the development of "a powerful bomb which kills only gays". On Western society, Troitsky wrote: "I don't need that kind of freedom and democracy. If all these perverts were finished off, then the earth would be much purer." Sadly, Troitsky's firing proved to be a highly-divisive issue. An earlier survey done by ROSKhVE indicated that Russian rejection of the gay lifestyle and public displays of "gayness" (gay parades) was virtually universal. A liberal periodical in the US remarked dryly in another context that "Russia does not need much encouragement along these lines".
The border between theological conviction and hatred has been clearly crossed by Slavic immigrants in the USA's Pacific Northwest. On 1 July 2007 at a lake near Sacramento, two Slavs claiming to be evangelicals brutally beat a homosexual from Fiji named Satender Singh. He died several days later from his injuries. US-media claimed that "the Slavic men bragged about belonging to a Russian evangelical church and told Singh that he should go to a 'good church' like theirs".
Evangelical immigrants from the lands of the former Soviet Union are moving into the forefront of the public struggle against gays in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps by coincidence, these immigrants chose to move precisely into regions known for their gay-inspired subcultures: Sacramento, Seattle and Portland. Vlad Kusakin, a Russian-speaking radio host and publisher, claimed in 2007 that God has "made an injection" of anti-gay Slavic evangelicals into traditionally-tolerant West Coast cities. "In those places where the disease is progressing, God has made a divine penicillin." Native media report on demonstrations featuring hundreds of Russian-speaking teens wearing "Sodomy is a Sin" T-shirts and placard-waving babushkas in scarves.
Clashes between the two cultures have been less than peaceful. Darrel Steinberg, a state senator from Sacramento, reported in 2006 that he was shocked by the behaviour of "Slavic fundamentalist" counter-demonstrators: "Their words are vile, and words may give them the implicit license to take the next step and hurt people." In Riga/ Latvia it is claimed that evangelical demonstrators have pelted gays and lesbians with bags of excrement. California journalist Casey Sanchez reports that "anti-gay talk radio hosts and fundamentalist preachers routinely deliver hateful speeches on the airwaves and from the pulpit in their native tongue. Were they delivered in English, they would be a source of nationwide controversy."
Gay-rights activists blame Singh's death on what they call the "U.S.-Latvia Axis of Hate." This is a reference to Alexey Ledyaev, head of the Riga-based "New Generation" Charismatic denomination and a major player in the West´s Slavic, anti-gay movement. Ledyaev, an ethnic Ukrainian born into a Baptist family in Alma-Ata/Kazakhstan in 1956, moved to Latvia in the 1980's and formed New Generation as a break-off from the traditionalist Pentecostal union in 1989.
Yet even in EU-member Latvia, this denomination is largely Russian and Ukrainian in orientation; 110 of its roughly 200 congregations are located in Ukraine - another 60 are in Russia. Other congregations stretch from Argentina to the USA, Israel, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The denomination is allied closely with the right-wing and clerical "Latvia First Party" originally founded in 2002.
Together with the American anti-gay activist Scott Lively, Ledyaev founded the Riga-based "Watchmen on the Walls" organisation with the intent of defending "Christian morals and values in society". Other leading members include the black, Seattle-based pastor Kenneth Hutcherson and the afore-mentioned Vlad Kusakin.
Lively, who is now serving a heavily-Slavic New Generation congregation in Springfield/Massachusetts, was reputed to be the brain behind Uganda's stiff anti-gay legislation of 2009 demanding lengthy prison terms or the death penalty for that country's homosexuals. Lively, who has been branded a holocaust revisionist, published "The Pink Swastika", a book attributing the holocaust to homosexuals, in 1995. Ledyaev saw to it that a Russian version appeared three years later. Though Ledyaev himself can only get Russian visas with difficulty, Lively reported that the translation's publication led to a deluge of speaking offers. Casey Sanchez claimed in 2007 that Lively "frequently speaks about the book and his broader anti-gay agenda in churches, police academies and television news studios throughout the former Soviet Union". Yet Professor Stephen Feinstein from the University of Minnesota, one of the book's many detractors, describes it as being "as correct as flat earth theory". Ledyaev was received in the Bush White House in February 2007.
Ledyaev pushes a profoundly political agenda. In 2002, he published his political treatise, "The New World Order", which calls for the wealthy and powerful to create theocratic states run according to Christian principles. The book borrows heavily from R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001), the founder of Christian Reconstructionism. Reconstructionism and its mouthpiece, the Chalcedon Report, call for a kind of Old Testament-Christian Sharia law allowing for liberal usage of the death penalty. Described as an extreme Calvinist with anti-democratic convictions, Rushdoony defended white supremacy and even slavery.
Essentially, Ledyaev's book is an expression of the ideological struggle between a pluralistic and secularist West and the dream of a monolithic, authoritarian and white Christian state. What Ledyaev envisions is comparable to Spain's Falangist movement or the Apartheid regime of South Africa. Ledyaev's future battle plan is clear: "The first devastating wave of homosexuality prepares the way for the second and more dangerous wave of Islamization." Homosexuals will destroy Western fertility; Muslims will then move in to suffocate the West with their sky-high birth rates.
Articles in the US have been entitled "From Russia - or Latvia - with Hate". The Alabama-based "Southern Poverty Law Center" includes "Watchmen on the Walls", the "Chalcedon Foundation" and Lively's "American Family Association" on its list of 925+ hate groups. This is of course no scientifically-neutral designation, for some on the other side of the ideological barricades are also capable of hatred.
ROSKhVE hits the brakes
In 2004, two years after the appearance of "The New World Order", Ulf Ekman, the founder of Sweden's "New Life" movement and one of Ledyaev's long-time mentors, distanced himself from New Generation. Ryakhovsky followed suit a year later, calling the book heretical and an unacceptable mixture of church and state. Nevertheless, Kiev's "Invictory", the world's primary Russian-language Protestant (and Charismatic) news service, named Ledyaev its "Reformer of the Year" in 2005. New Generation may be down but not out in Russia: It's most recent Moscow church plant occurred in July 2011.
That longevity could be attributed to the fact that the themes of the Christian anti-gay movement reach far beyond the confines of the Charismatic movement. The low white birth rate, the Muslim threat, the rejection of multiculturalism and Western-style tolerance are national concerns in Russia. Rightest Christians see the separation of church and state as a liberal ploy intended to rob Christians of their freedom. Lively's long-time call to make any public advocacy of homosexuality illegal has wide support, also among Russian Baptists. A prominent Russian Baptist pastor from the Pacific Northwest called in Ukraine in 2009 for the deportation of homosexuals to a lonely and distant isle. It is worrisome that the Christian far-right and the Russian mainstream often have similar objectives - the differences are ones of degree.
It is difficult to believe that protection of the family is the real concern driving the anti-gay struggle. Since the number of substance-abusing parents and AWOL fathers in Russia outnumbers the gays by at last 100 to 1, it would appear that a defender of the family caught up in the struggle against homosexuality has chosen the wrong battle. Would not a programme of marriage counselling be of much greater benefit to society? Nearly non-existent gay parades are not a problem in Russia - rejection of minorities is.
In a ROSKhVE statement from 10 June 2010, Bishop Ryakhovsky made a small step by conceding that his congregations were open to persons committing the sin of homosexuality or struggling with it. "We are willing to pray for them and offer counselling aid in hopes of freeing them from this spiritual dependency." In short: Gays are worthy and capable of conversion to the Christian faith. Perhaps this is almost a start, but we straights will not get very far if our only concern is to convert and change gays. It will take much more effort and caring than that. One also cannot convert the adherents of other religions by assuring them how right we are and how wrong they are. One starts by searching respectfully for a common basis.
I personally believe the homosexual lifestyle cannot be defended on the basis of the Bible. But this "no" must be combined with clear affirmation of that person as God's precious creation. Despite that person’s sexual preferences, he or she is a human being loved by God. Those who believe A, must also do B. I don't see that Russian Protestants have yet gotten to point B. Indeed, I have never yet seen a church statement in Russia decrying the hatred of homosexuals. The churches are very vocal regarding gay parades, but they have responded to Nikolay Troitsky's outrage until now with silence.
We have no room at all to offend gays and lesbians unduly - those for whom Christ also died. See Jesus' statement on the millstone in Matthew 18,6. There are rules of behaviour to be followed. Until they reach a balance between A and B, the evangelicals of Russia will be more like cyanide than penicillin on the issue of homosexuality.
I believe the Presbyterian C. Everett Koop (born 1916), Surgeon-General during the administration of Ronald Reagan, was on the right track. Though personally opposed to the practice of homosexuality, he did everything in his power to preserve the lives of gays. The same is true for the anti-AIDS campaign of Rick Warren's "Saddleback Church" in California. The evangelical struggle against AIDS sends the proper signal: Gays also have the right to a long life.
It's OK to decry homosexuality as sin - but the ice gets thin quickly. The dragons are lurking just below the surface.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 25 July 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-14, 1.997 words, 12.827 keystrokes and spaces.
What Kinds of Stereotypes Exist?
A Belarusian Charismatic in conversation with the KGB
M o s c o w – Ears perked when Sergey Lukanin reported in a press release on his conversation after being summoned to the Belarusian KGB on 3 June. Lukanin (born 1970) is a professional barrister, advocate and press speaker for Minsk’s 1.000+-member Charismatic “New Life” congregation. In the next-to-last paragraph of his press release of 6 June (see „www.newlife.by“), Lukanin asks the KGB when it will stop treating the Charismatics as enemies. The KGB-representative responded: “It is possible that in the current situation negative stereotypes predominate on both sides.” He proposed thereby that negotiations led by a nationally-known mediator trusted by both parties could lead to a significant release of tension. I was therefore eager to hear from Lukanin on 19 June how he describes the stereotypes prevalent on the Charismatic end. Was it conceivable that both parties were finally willing to push the Obama administration’s famous “reset” button?
Lukanin noted in an elaborate response that his congregation was still restricted to an island existence. New Life, which holds its services in a refurbished, 2002-purchased cowshed on the Western edge of the city, is still forced to produce its own power and heat. Its bank account remains frozen. The city’s first eviction order arrived in 2005; municipal authorities and the church have been locked in combat ever since.
This church, which was founded by 22-year-old Vyacheslav Goncharenko in 1992, had split off from the country’s Pentecostal union. This Neo-Pentecostal or Charismatic denomination now has a network of nearly 10 congregations throughout the country and calls itself “Full-Gospel Fellowship”. It claims to have no closer partner in the West; it is in any case theologically allied with the Riga/Latvia-based “New Generation” denomination headed by the politically-rightist Alexey Ladyaev and the Texas-based “Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministers International”.
Lukanin reports that relations between the state and the Charismatic movement have recovered somewhat from their low point in 2007-2008. No Protestant pastors are presently jailed; some property taxes have been dropped for churches and the state’s ban on public advertising for sorcery is interpreted as a gesture of good will. Yet the barrister sees no progress on the fundamental issues involving New Life; “Nothing has changed since the conversation with the KGB.”
Arguments in defence of the church
In our conversation, Lukanin could not describe any stereotype harboured by his church regarding representatives of the Belarusian government – but he could list a stereotypical view held by the other side. Orthodox church and government circles frequently claim New Life has sought conflict with the state for the sake of obtaining international renown and funding.
Yet the church’s speaker insists that his church is only responding to government provocations. The church conducts itself strictly in a defensive and non-political fashion; it itself does not initiate anti-government activities. The state acts – his church only reacts. This negates the theory that conflict situations can consist of an endless chain and spiral of reactions by which both sides egg each other on to ever greater “deeds of misfortune”.
According to Lukanin, the conflict only began after the state initiated attempts to wrest the church from its hard-won real estate: “We only criticise the state if it infringes upon our constitutional rights.” He reported that his church has denounced the subservience of the courts to political offices. “But that is simply an undisputable fact, a long-term status,” he insisted. “We are only claiming that which is already totally clear.”
Matters of dispute are spiritualised. Lukanin stated for ex.: “We were motivated by the desire to defend out property, to defend that which God had presented to us.” When God decrees, non-compliance can only be interpreted as religious disobedience. In this fashion, Charismatics and many other believers remove themselves from the debate on the pros and cons of their actions.
The claim to passive behaviour is also evident in the matter of coalition partners. I made the claim that seeking the support of Minsk’s Western embassies only confirmed the suspicion that this church was an entity of Western origin alien to Belarusian turf. The barrister responded that his body did not actively select its friends. “We are open to all persons of good will,” he insisted. The ambassadors of Western governments had visited New Life repeatedly simply “because God had moved their hearts”. In one instance, a delegation from the state-allied BSRM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union) movement paid the unique church building a visit. Sergey Lukanin is a charming person – he quickly won the sympathy of his guests. For the sake of his church’s work, Lukanin accepted the gift of $20 US they offered him.
Matters more active than reactive
The gathering of protest signatures, the church’s hunger strike in October 2006 and Lukanin’s highly-public appearances at international forums (OSCE in Romania, EU in Brussels, Christian-Democratic summit in Helsinki for ex.) seem to indicate a politically active stance. Indeed, New Life is the leading Protestant voice of opposition in the country. It does not restrict itself to its own immediate concerns when addressing the public. In the conversation on 19 June Lukanin assured: “If the state acts contrary to God’s laws, if it uses violence against the people, if it acts unjustly - then God calls on the church to reveal and denounce both the sin and the sinner.”
Last October, public figures signed an appeal supporting New Life in its legal struggle with the state. Lukanin claims that his church is neither member nor participant of the “Belarusian Christian Democracy”. Yet three of the seven signing this appeal are leaders within this party. Lukanin is a close friend of one of them: Party President Vitaly Rymashevsky, who was imprisoned after the elections on 19 December. “I support him and he is a friend of our family.”
Some statements made by these Christian Democrats could be interpreted as theocratic. In an interview with a Ukrainian, Charismatic news agency, the Protestant dissident Andrey Kim predicted: “Belarus will be a country in which not the human being, but rather God, will be the highest good. The law, namely God’s law, will rule – not arbitrariness.”
In great contrast to the country’s registered Baptists, who prefer to settle their differences with the state behind closed doors, New Life is not afraid to act confrontationally. On 19 June Lukanin even reported on a transfer of power: The threatened seizure of its property by the militia has never taken place – even though the congregation would not attempt to defend itself by force. For years, the congregation has been able to sustain its decision to deny entry into its building to any representative of the state arriving under state orders. “We conclude that God has taken away their power and given it to us. We have power, for we know that justice is on our side. The truth is on our side.” Who could prevail against such a force?
More than a few Orthodox observers give New Life a more modest rating. One Minsk scholar claimed that the seven persons signing the October appeal in support of the church had thereby spoiled all chances of ever again obtaining Orthodox votes. The signers included the leading oppositional politician Andrei Sannikov, who has been imprisoned since 19 December. But such an assessment is probably also an overstatement of Protestant significance – they make up no more than 1% of the Belarusian populace.
I assume that if it remains impossible for the still-unnamed mediator to reach the “reset” button, the process of egging each other on to “misdeeds” of ever greater consequence will continue indefinitely. If attempts to stop and reboot the computer do not succeed, then a possible process of mutual learning is far from imminent.
Though more than a few of Belarus’ church buildings and religious gatherings are technically illegal, they are nevertheless tolerated. At least one of Minsk’s technically-illegal churches is marked on a popular city map. In Russia, not even long-time Protestant churches – Moscow’s famous “Central Baptist Church” for ex. – show up on city maps. But there might be an occasional exception in Russia.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 28 June 2011
New mobile number for Yoder when in Moscow: +7 916 381 2273
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-12, 1.338 words, 8.409 keystrokes and spaces.
Putting an End to Orphanages
Regarding the efforts of Ukrainian pastor Gennady Mokhnenko
M o s c o w – Eastern European people of good will usually support the retention and improvement of orphanages. But the Ukrainian pastor Gennady Mokhnenko expects the exact opposite: He wants them eliminated. In a recent interview this Charismatic pastor described his “mega-dream”: “The ceremonial closure of the last orphanage on the terrain of the former USSR.” They are to be replaced by caring, Christian families willing to accept orphans and abandoned children into their homes. He wrote in an open letter of 24 February 2011: “If every (Protestant) congregation finds between three and five families ready to accept foster children, then we could empty all of our country’s orphanages in short order. The statistics prove that this is possible. All we really need, is to do it!” Ukraine has 102.000 orphans and abandoned children; in Russia that number exceeds 1,5 million.
Mokhnenko reappeared in the headlines in late May when „Makarenko from Mariupol“, a film featuring his work, was named the year’s best film on the issue of children by the national “Open Ukraine” competition. The film reports on the lives of drug-addicted and neglected children that the pastor and his congregation had gathered from the city’s basements and gutters. (Anton Makarenko was the Soviet Union’s best-known educator.)
Today, „Pilgrim Republic“(Respublika Piligrim), which was founded by Pastor Mokhnenko, is Ukraine’s largest Protestant children’s centre. The centre is presently home to 400 minors; 2.500 children have transitioned through this home since its inception in 2001. More than half of them are now living with families or in boarding schools. Others are living lives which cause concern to their one-time supervisors – but these adults believe that good seed has been sown. “We have also buried many children,” the centre’s head concedes. This home is today part of a network of 32 rehab centres for children in Ukraine and Russia, many of which were founded by Mokhnenko. Adults are now also being served in some centres.
Gennady Mokhnenko was born into a violent and alcoholic family in the port city of Mariupol in the south-eastern corner of the country in 1968. In 1992, he planted a congregation known as “The Church of Positive Changes” in his native city. The city was teeming with street urchins early in the 1990s. In 1998, members of his congregation began to bring warm meals to children squatting in basements and other hideaways.
This mission reports that 20% of its young clients are HIV-positive; it has consequently made rehabilitation work among drug and glue addicts a priority. Basic school training is also vital; many of them are still illiterate. Its primary objectives include the “domestication” of children, acclimating them to family-style living and regular school work. Yet spiritual issues are not neglected. In an interview the effort’s founder assured: “All our experiences show that without a deep spiritual conversion, that without a true rebirth, even the grandest pedagogical concepts do not work.”
Mokhnenko himself is not only a gifted manager – he attempts to practice what he preaches. In addition to three children of their own, he and his wife Yelena have adopted 21 more. Between 11 and 13 of them are presently living under one roof with the couple. He assures that some of them are now as close to him as his own biological children: “I cannot imagine living without them any more.”
Obviously, an effort of this size cannot succeed without the robust aid of partners. A major contributor to this work is Sacramento/California’s “House of Bread”. This Charismatic congregation consists primarily of Slavic immigrants and is headed by the 37-year-old Ukrainian Alexander Shevchenko. Baptists are also cooperating: Mokhnenko notes that an entire container of humanitarian aid donated by a Baptist congregation in the USA has been of major assistance.
Gennady Mokhnenko sits on the board of the initiatives „Ukraine without Orphans“ and „You Will be Found“. The 2010-founded campaign „Ukraine without Orphans“ intends to get the country “orphan-free” by 2015. It is supported for ex. by Pat Robertson’s “Christian Broacasting Network”, “CoMission”, „Compassion International“ and the Baptist-allied „Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries”. “You Will be Found” has very similar goals and is supported by similar Western agencies.
Despite initial resistance, the city fathers of Mariupol are also on-board. They are now paying for heat and power at the centre’s primary building. Its director assures that relations with the city are “very good”.
Equal rights for gay couples
“Pilgrim Republic” combines its practical aid for individual children with socio-political efforts expressed in part through public rallies and bicycle tours. When the Ukrainian parliament ratified the “European Convention on the Adoption of Children” last February, major protests from the above-mentioned initiatives resulted. Peter Dudink, a Charismatic pastor from Slavyansk, described it as a plus that Ukrainian orphans could now be more easily adopted by Western European families. „But it is certainly a minus that unisex families will be able to adopt Ukrainian orphans.“
In Gennady Mokhnenko’s open letter from 24 February mentioned above, he appealed for a “radical, national strategy of adoption” as the simplest way to “prevent a national disgrace”. Mass Protestant applications for adoption would push unisex couples from Western Europe to the back of long waiting lines. Offering all orphans a family would destroy the chances of gay couples.
In this letter he calls for putting aside all confessional disputes in order to prevail in the struggle against the legal upgrading of unisex relationships. “We must make clear to politicians that public opinion will not accept this abomination in silence.” He continued: “If we do not wake up soon and jointly confront this evil, then a curse will fall upon our land and our children. They will then need to live in a complete different society 10 to 15 years from now.”
This reaction could be described, among other things, as a simple overreaction. The revised Convention of 27 November 2008 leaves it up to the member state to decide whether or not to permit unisex couples to adopt. The Convention does not force any state to give equal legal status to homosexual unions.
The pastor from Mariupol can be thanked for many wonderful initiatives. The demographic crisis present in the former Soviet states could also be softened by awakening the reserves slumbering in the now-living adults and children subsisting on the fringe of society. All of us would profit from the mobilisation of those reserves. How the world’s sexual minorities could also profit from the love of Christ – that issue is deserving of additional reflection not only in Western Europe.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 15 June 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-11, 1.083 words, 6.826 keystrokes and spaces.
Supporting All in Their Search for God
“Liberal secular humanist” holds riveting speech on Orthodox turf
M o s c o w – On 25 May, the Russian Orthodox Church caused a sensation when it invited one of its long-time critics, a “liberal, secular humanist”, to speak at the “World Russian People's Council”’s annual session in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Describing himself as an atheist of Jewish ancestry, the politician Leonid Gozman came out sounding very evangelical. Addressing Patriarch Kirill at the outset of his speech, he stated: The mere fact that you have asked someone such as I to speak, “is convincing evidence of your desire to unify our nation irregardless of ethnicity or one’s relationship to religion”.
Citing ethnic conflicts and the mutilation of army recruits, Gozman launched into an appeal for Orthodoxy to side with the oppressed in their struggle against the “cruelty and injustice of the government machine”. Those struggling to survive should know for certain “that the entire church, from the local priest all the way up to the Patriarch, is for them – and not against them.” He asked the Patriarch point-blank: “How does the church view the innumerable palaces and yachts of top-level officials?”
The politician lofted the dream of a selfless church fighting not for itself, but for the freedom of all. Instead of struggling to defend its own historical, canonical territory, the church should be defending freedom of conscience. He desires that the church ”stop distinguishing between traditional and non-traditional religions, but rather support all persons en route to God irrespective of the temple door at which that search will end”.
Orthodoxy enjoys major authority among Russians and Gozman believes it can afford to remain far removed from all appearances of self-serving servility to the government. If the church authorities “really believed in God instead of just representing the faith, then they would not thank government officials for all the restored churches returned to them”. They would instead “denounce corruption and luxury, hypocrisy and untruth”.
Only if Orthodoxy is free from the state, can an individual’s choice for or against a belief be truly voluntary and meaningful. He stressed his abhorrence of government religion and government-sponsored ideology. He nevertheless stressed “evangelical principles” – a highly unusual term in Russian society – as a longtime “moral foundation for both believers and unbelievers”.
Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Church Relations for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” was present at this top-level event. He was delighted by Gozman’s speech: “It was by far the most impressive speech given”. Though this opposition politician’s expectations may be utopian, it is nevertheless “an encouraging sign of pluralism that the ROC allows such a person to speak at one of its major events”.
Leonid Gozman (born 1950) may himself be endangered by the lure of power and wealth. His middle-class, pro-capitalist party, the 2009-founded “Right Cause”, may soon be joined by the billionaire industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov.
Though not mentioned by name, Russian Protestants play a part in the government scenario as portrayed by Gozman. The politician lashed out against government measures being taken against green environmentalists protesting the destruction of Khimki Forest just to the north of Moscow. As we reported last August, that forest is being leveled for the construction of a toll road by the firm of the Evangelical-Christian and ex-Baptist Alexander Semchenko. Semchenko’s own security personnel have along with government forces been engaged in low-scale warfare with the environmentalists.
The “World Russian People's Council” was founded in 1993 and regards itself as a platform for top-level exchange regarding the state and future of Russian society. Gozman’s speech is featured on its Russian-language website: “vrns.ru”.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Berlin, 30 May 2011
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. Release #11-10, 587 words, 3.846 keystrokes and spaces.
Moscow’s CIAC holds its first public meeting in years
M o s c o w -- The topic was demographics as the “Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics” (CIAC) convened on 13 May in the headquarters of Moscow’s Roman-Catholic “Mother of God Archdiocese” for its first public session in 10 years. Yet according to Baptist pastor Vitaly Vlasenko, the Protestant representative on the CIAC’s Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant triumvirate leadership committee, the issue for Protestants is not only one of demographics – it is also one of acceptance. It matters to Protestants that they be accepted as a native and positive contributor to the well-being of Russian society. He assured: “The most important matter for us is whether the evangelical churches, which indeed are an integral part of Russian society, can make their own unique contribution in this very complicated realm.” Vlasenko added that the efforts of Russia’s Christian confessions can only succeed if they “learn to speak with a single voice. Otherwise, our proclamations will exist only on paper.”
Speakers mentioned most of the causes of population decline: poor medical care and substance abuse cause the low life expectancy of Russian males, the unwillingness or incapability of the state to support young families, high abortion rates, career orientation and consumerism. Orthodox speakers such as Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeyev), head of the Department for External Affairs in the “Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate”, called for the creation of very large – Christian - families. Yet in view of skyrocketing costs in Russia’s larger cities, it would appear to me that only a budding oligarch could afford a 10-member family. Children are expensive and consistently endanger the purchase of a new car or a vacation in visa-free Turkey.
Wikipedia reports that the Russian population is hovering at 142,9 million – up slightly in 2009. In 1991 it had peaked at 148,7 million. The current birth rate is 12,6 births per 1.000 population per year; the death rate is 14.3 per 1.000. In 1929, during the heyday of the communist movement, the birth rate was at 49,6; the death rate, 28.6.
Moral appeals were the order of the day on 13 May, yet it is my belief that appeals to patriotism and conscience can have only limited success. Christian circles – and not just the Orthodox – are pushing for a Christian consensus as the ideological and religious foundation of Russian society. But on the matter of demographics, social insecurity and the all-pervasive goals of the consumer society will remain much weightier factors. In today’s highly-mobile world, the masses will gravitate to where the quality of life is highest. Liberal immigration, a relative high quality of life entailing economic stability and the rule of law, a broad distribution of national wealth and opportunities for advancement in career and business – these factors would solve the problem for Russia automatically. Until Russia meets these criteria, the downward slide will continue. Russia does not have an aggressive, binding ideology as it did in 1929.
The developed, burgeoning societies of Western Europe, North America and Australia have not solved the demographic problem simply by offering a high quality of life. The financial incentive alone did not result in more babies. They have needed to combine that with a liberal position on immigration allowing many foreigners to resettle within their own borders. That is succeeding in Canada, for the arriving masses have included skilled workers and specialists. Canada, a country with geographic and climactic conditions similar to Russia’s, had only 13,7 million residents in 1950. In 1991, the number was 27,9 million. Present population is estimated to be 34,3 million, an increase of 19% over the last two decades. Yet Canada’s birth rate is significantly lower than Russia’s: only 10,28 births per 1.000 in 2009. But its death rate was only half as high: 7,74 deaths.
In his lecture, Metropolitan Ilarion called for “the total mobilisation of all healthy forces in society” in solving the demographic crisis. The sticky point is the word “healthy”. A question not posed at that gathering needs to be asked: Would Russian society accept the impoverished Muslim peoples of Central Asia, the Chinese or the blacks of Sub-Saharan Africa as “healthy forces”? North America, Western Europe and Australia have embraced immigration as a solution for demographic problems even if it meant their once-white societies would become “browner” or “more yellow”.
There is not yet any indication that Russian society is willing to bite that bullet, to solve the demographic crisis by becoming “browner” - even if that only means integrating more Russian-speaking Central Asians. Japan is another country reluctant to permit immigration, and the population of that wealthy, densely-populated, non-White country (126,8 million in 2010) is decreasing slowly. It does in any case appear that a majority-White society unwilling to accept immigrants of colour cannot grow.
Looking at the issue globally, there obviously are sufficient people – and money – to cover the basic needs of all countries. The real problem is one of distribution. The cynical and uncaring could claim that the “wrong” children are being born: children of colour in the impoverished nations of the developing world. For no obvious reason, they are being absorbed most readily by the densely-populated nations of Western Europe as well as North America.
The Christians of Russia need to start considering many more factors. Attempting to boost fertility will not help if other basic social and political issues are not addressed – see the positive example of Canada.
The CIAC was created in 1993 to ease communication between churches in the countries of the former USSR and held major conferences in 1994, 1996 and 1999. Yet its activities were suspended by the Orthodox in February 2002 and not reactivated until October 2008.
The CIAC is oriented towards work within the countries of the former USSR – not in the outside world. Perhaps for that reason, its present status is wobbly among the Orthodox. It does not appear to be an important priority for them. Some of its leaders must remain unsure regarding the best way to further ROC interests.
The third member of CIAC leadership (along with Ilarion and Vlasenko) is the Italian Pavel Pezzi, the Roman-Catholic Archbishop of Moscow Diocese.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 25 May 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-09, 1.013 words, 6.424 keystrokes and spaces.
Church Life Never Disappeared
Book on Baptist history in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad publshed
M o s c o w – Very likely the first Russian-language book dealing with Baptist life in the once-German Soviet enclave of Kaliningrad (German East Prussia) after 1945 appeared recently. Its author is Anatoly Krikun, the current Baptist Bishop (called “Starshy Presbyter”) of Kaliningrad/Königsberg. Publisher is the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”’ “Moscow Theological Seminary”. The book is part of the Bishop’s work on a Master’s degree.
Intended to be a model zone for the socialist experiment, the newly-annexed region of Kaliningrad was to be denied any visible church life. Yet Krikun makes clear that despite persecution, church life on this once German turf never did disappear. The initial two-thirds of the book describes the German period up until 1945 and offers nothing new of substance to the German-language reader. But the description of the Soviet period from a Russian Baptist perspective indeed does break new ground. But the booklet’s title is confusing: “History of the Evangelical Christians-Baptists in East Prussia and Kaliningrad Region” (Istoria evangeliskikh khristian-baptistow w Wostotschnoi Prussi i Kaliningradskoi oblasti). German East Prussia never did sport a Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist congregation.
In no way does the author gloss over the existential hardships and vandalism of some Soviet citizens during the initial years. Hunger occurred not only in the Russian “motherland” immediately after the War. Krikun notes that 51% of the settlers who arrived during the period from 1948 to 1953 chose not to stay. Being that only 7.000 new settlers had arrived by November 1945 and more than 100.000 Germans remained, church life was very much in hands of Germans until their final deportion. Without regard for anyone’s denominational loyalties, Germans and Soviet citizens gathered at first under the spiritual leadership of Germans to worship. German clerics were highly-respected: “Generally speaking, relations between the two groups were positive.” (p. 81). The lack of any Orthodox church structures made it particularly easy for Baptists to evangelise on their own terms. In Kaliningrad, a 60-member Baptist congregation headed by the German pastor Heinrich Fenner was granted state registration in 1947. Yet that congregation did not survive the deportation of the final Germans.
Baptist settlers first appear in the Soviet archives from 1947. The departure of the final Germans a year later nearly rang down the curtain on church life. That indeed appeared to occur among the Lutherans. Krikun does not mention that anyone wanting to attend a Lutheran service in the four decades after 1948 needed to travel to Lithuania. The Lutheran church in Silute (Heydekrug) in the Memel border region never was shut down by the Soviet authorities.
The arrival of ever-new settlers from Western Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus repeatedly restocked the meagre Baptist ranks. In March 1947, the double-amputated preacher M. P. Reitusky arrived from Zaporozhe in Ukaine. Until 1954, he served as the leading Baptist clergyman for the entire region. In 1950, his Kaliningrad congregation had 40 members; 30 more attended one in Chernyakhovsk (Insterburg). Other house fellowships were located in Gusev (Gumbinnen) and Sovietsk (Tilsit). One-hundred-thirty of the faithful attended a feast in 1961; Krikun reports on 70 “activists” at that time.
Beginning in 1964, ethnic German families from Kyrgyzstan with abundant numbers of children began to arrive. The arrival of these Germans furnished the Baptist movement with its first heyday lasting from 1976 until about 1989. Pavel Meissner already arrived from Kyrgyzstan in 1963; he headed the Baptist church of the region from 1965 until his emigration to Germany in 1976. In the years from 1966 until 1976, the Kaliningrad congegation usually gathered for worship at his house in the village of Pervomaiskaya near the former Bladiau far to the south of Kaliningrad. Thirty-percent of the region’s Baptists were of German ethnicity in the mid-70s – a fact which heightened the suspicions of state authorities. Krikun reports that government pressures forced Meisser to emigrate – his departure was followed by a wave of Germany-bound emigration. Today, only a tiny handful of ethnic Germans remain. In 1976, just before that initial exodus, the Kaliningrad congregation had 220 members.
A turbulant chuch life
Baptist church life did not remain free of divisions and strife. Pentecostals began to arrive from Western Belarus in 1951. After worshiping together for a year, Pentecostals decided to go their own way – taking a number of Baptist families with them. The primary issue of content was speaking in tongues.
Krikun reports that massive state pressure around 1959 – also in the public media – caused major discord among Baptists. Personal misconduct forced Pastors Reiutski and A.A. Mogila to terminate their leadership. Divergent opinions on how best to react to the government – and its KGB infiltrators – nearly finished off the Baptist movement. Pastoral authority was undermined: “Some of the less-stalwart left the church never to return.” (p. 101)
Yet the church was able to regain its footing and decided to ordain two additional men in 1965. New members were in need of additional care. Yet Moscow’s All-Union Council of Baptists refused to ordain, citing the fact that the Kaliningrad congregation remained unregistered. Church leadership therefore approached a non-registered congregation of the “Initiativniki” in Brest/Belarus. During the visit of a small delegation from Brest in Kaliningrad, the guests made clear they would only be of assistance if the Kaliningrad group halted all cooperation with the USSR’s registered churches. The hosts decided not to accept the offer; unauthorized ordinations without outside sanction followed. One other result of these contacts was the formation of a group of “Initiativniki” in Kaliningrad. The Master’s thesis of the Russian-German Alex Breitkreuz, which appeared in 2006, states that this unregistered group had a respectable membership of 300 in 2004.
Government repression appeared in waves. Krikun lists 1954, 1958, 1964, 1971, 1981 and 1984 as the years in which state pressure was the strongest. (p. 108)
Since the region’s congregations were unregistered and consequently illegal, it was impossible for them to open chapels of worship. All attempts after 1948 to achieve legality were repulsed. Yet a dramatic breakthrough occurred in May 1967: The Baptists were legally registered as the region’s first religious group. That can be seen on the webpage of Kaliningrad’s Baptist church („mir-kld.ru“). Yet Krikun writes in his book that Baptists were only “one of the first religious organisations” registered within the region. (p. 106) Significant in any case is the fact that this registration occurred long before registration of the Orthodox, which did not occur until April 1985. The Catholics and Lutherans were registered there in 1991.
Closely tied to registration issues was the matter of real estate. Only on the third try was it possible to dedicate with major festivities a small, brand-new house of prayer on 12 August 1979. It was located at Krylova Street 38 on the northern edge of Kaliningrad far removed from any means of public transportation. Even the region’s Secretary for Religious Affairs, Y. Y. Makhobaisky attended. A trusting relationship had developed between him and the church. Krikun describes Makhobaisky as an “honest and intelligent person”. “When it was called for, he would defend the rights of the believers.” (p. 114) The very early registration of the Baptists was very likely due to this special relationship.
Private houses had been obtained in 1965 and 1973 with the intention of remaking them into houses of worship. In the first case, the house was quickly confiscated by the state. In the second instance, after many months of official foot-dragging, the nearly completed building was torched by supposed arsons and leveled in 1975.
Following Messner’s departure in 1976, the chauffeur Viktor Shumeyev was appointed “Senior Pastor”. He had arrived in the region as a 10-year-old with his parents in 1950 from Belgorod region in Western Russia. He retired as a pastor in January of this year.
The 1946-born engineer Anatoly Krikun hails from Berdichev in Zhitomir region not far from Kiev, where his father Ivan had served as a lay minister. He arrived in Kaliningrad region in 1967 and replaced Shumeyev as Church Secretary in 1973. Krikun was ordained a deacon in 1993 and became a pastor a year later. He was officially named the Senior Pastor (Bishop) in 1996.
Krikun’s book suddenly ends with 1985 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power. Krikun’s own naming as Senior Pastor is not mentioned. Also unmentioned is his congregation’s move to an impressive new structure at Gagarina Street 18 in the east of the city. A church centre with space for 500 worshippers was dedicated there on 23 August 1998. The event’s 700 guests included 100 from Germany. The Germans contributed most of the funding (500.000 German marks) for the building of the structure – many donors had been residents of long-gone Eastern Prussia. Breitkreuz reports that this Kaliningrad congregation had a membership of 318 in 2004; the entire enclave had 426 registered Baptists. Church life has remained stable; in 1999 a “Bible college” now enjoying state recognition was opened. That institution relates to the Germany “Bible Seminary Bonn”, which is run by German emigres from Russia.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 19 May 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-08, 1.489 words, 9.560 keystrokes and spaces.
The Big Gap in the Middle
Is it money that keeps VSEKh afloat?
M o s c o w – Is more than money keeping the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians” (VSEKh) afloat? Is it more than the brainchild of a single ambitious person? Will the Fellowship survive the death of its benefactor – or at least the death of his bank account? Such questions were abuzz among observers of its second national conference, held from 26 to 28 April in Moscow’s “Izmailovo Hotel”. The industrialist Alexander Semchenko (born 1948) sank hundreds of thousand of dollars into this congress and its 800 participants. By now, the 2008-founded VSEKh (BCEX) claims to represent 21 small church unions consisting of 665 local congregations.
Its detractors describe the Fellowship as a totally artificial creation. In an interview just prior to the Congress, Alexey Smirnov, President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB), claimed that VSEKh was attempting to split that which long ago had melted into one. “They call themselves ‘Evangelical-Christians’. For them, we Evangelical Christians-Baptists are suddenly only ‘Baptists’. We cannot serve jointly with the person (Semchenko) who started this until he repents from the splitting and destruction of fellowship he has caused. This is for us a spiritual issue and matter of principle.” The RUECB-President called the new movement “unbiblical”, for it is only an “outgrowth of resentments”.
Clear in any case is that VSEKh has been fishing without prior agreement for personnel in the ponds of other churches. Until 2008, Leonid Kartavenko, Simon Borodin (both from the Missions Department) and even Alexander Semchenko himself had been leaders under RUECB-auspices. Two years later, Pavel Kolesnikov (Baptist pastor in Zelenograd near Moscow) und Irina Metrofanova from the RUECB’s Catechism Department followed suit.
The Congress itself featured passionate supporters of VSEKh. Not a few of its adherents interpret the new Fellowship as a protest against the hierarchic “nomenclature” of the Soviet era, known for making major issues out of minor ones (styles of baptism, clothing and music for ex.). Precisely this “old guard” has championed the Baptist subculture with its long, unwritten lists of rules and regulations. In contrast, VSEKh’s annual Easter concert offers an amazing mixture of party, sound and show. Leonid Kartavenko wrote: „Evangelical-Christians are more open to society, to new people and to methods of bringing the Gospel to them.”
In one conversation, a seasoned guest from the West attacked the fund-centered thinking of recent decades: “One was out to get donations – not to become a partner. One took all the funding one could, but otherwise let it be known that ‘we want to remain as we are’.” Nevertheless, the Unions were so concerned about pleasing Western sponsors that they “lost sight of the internal forces arising at home”. Addressing the absent traditionalists, the guest said: “As soon as the money sources here dry up, you’re off to America. No one believes any more that you really care about Russia. Who can still count on you? The West is fed up with this.“
The big gap in the middle
Russian Protestantism sports a big gap in the middle between „traditionalists“ and the Charismatics. The non-Charismatic VSEKh intends to place itself in that gap between traditional Protestant culture and the Charismatic world. A Western European guest admitted: “The platform for dialogue which Semchenko’s money has created is indeed an artificial one. It’s only a stage. But the concern propping it up is a very real one.”
Alexander Fedichkin, a RUECB-pastor in southern Moscow, cannot accept the claim of artificial creation. He reported that his own longing for an inter-denominational and open evangelistic movement has been around since the 1990s. Since Semchenko does not veer from the essentials of evangelical faith, Fedichkin described his thinking as “very biblical”. This longing, and not Semchenko’s spare cash, is the driving force behind the movement. The Baptist Anatoly Kaluzhny, Senior Pastor of a non-Union, non-Charismatic congregation of 1.500 in Kiev, said it even more clearly: “VSEKh – that’s what I am. It represents precisely that which I also want.”
Those camped on the wide turf between the fronts appeal for a relaxed position on the heated questions dividing Russia’s evangelicals. One observer explained: “As soon as someone speaks about the gifts of the Spirit, he is disqualified as a Pentecostal. But that’s unacceptable: In the long run, we cannot restrict ourselves to anti-Charismatic positions. A serious discussion is OK. We otherwise create aggressiveness and end up losing our young people.”
Though the large, once-Baptist congregation in Tushino (northwest Moscow) belongs to Sergey Ryakhovsky’s Charismatic union, it is participating in VSEKh. One person concluded: ”Congregations such as this one have not found a true home among the Charismatics – in their hearts they remain Baptists.” Is a new, left-wing of the Russian Baptist movement in the making?
For those in the gap, traditional Baptist struggles on the proper form of Baptism have no appeal. Baptism without immersion is par for the course in VSEKh congregations; those baptised as infants are usually accepted as members without rebaptism. Joint evangelistic efforts with the Orthodox are not ruled out.
Some of VSEKh’s member unions regard themselves as Calvinist, but they appear to welcome discussion. One visitor explained: “Even those who think in Calvinist terms do not define themselves by citing their adversaries. In this country, we have in the past always defined ourselves by naming our enemies. But this movement wants to describe itself as being for something. That gives us a new kind of Russian identity.”
A Western observer claimed it was the “old nomenclature” which has hampered inter-denominational efforts such as the Evangelical Alliance, the Lausanne movement and initiatives of Christian businessmen. Yet VSEKh is nearly without Soviet-era leaders.
This observer added that he had attended a Congress meeting dedicated to foreign mission at which the assembled expressed their willingness to fund 30 missionaries for Africa. “Those are fully new tunes!”, he exclaimed. „These people have a completely new level of self-confidence on mission. Things like that have a future because the West will support initiatives such as this one.”
The „All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, one of Europe’s largest Baptist unions, is regarded as a citadel of traditionalism. Its membership peaked a few years ago at 135.000. It was claimed in Moscow that membership is now dropping at the rate of 3.000 per year. Quotes on RUECB-membership range from 72.000 to 80.000 – tendency apparently downward.
Anatoly Kaluzhny prophesied in Moscow: “The Baptist Unions are going to have a hard time. Choices abound – a congregation is now free to choose the union it likes best.” But due to the long-term presence of multiple confessions, the presence of choices is hardly new – new is only the potential size of the VSEKh-alternative.
VSEKh-adherents claim to register an exodus of younger, educated and „innovative“ persons from the RUECB. “Regional associations have been formed by leaders who couldn’t adjust to the administrative style of the old unions. And the old unions never did understand how to keep the innovative forces under their wing.” That person added: “If this experiment VSEKh flies, then a lot will be leaving Evangelical Christian-Baptist circles. The force of innovation supporting these groups is enormous.”
Yet one should not assume that VSEKh plans to manage without Western connections. Southern Baptists from Georgia made a special trip to attend the Moscow congress. Leading representatives of the “Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism”, the „International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches“ (IFFEC) and the German mission “Light in the East” were also present. Missions such as “Wycliffe”, “Radio Teos” and the Latvian “Baznica” also attended. One observer concluded regarding the appearance of Lausanne: “The came because they see this new group as having a future.”
One foreign participant predicted: “The ‘Free Evangelical Churches’, the ‘Evangelical Covenant Church’ as well as the ‚Christian and Missionary Alliance’ invested significant amounts of cash in Russia. That was usually routed through the Baptist Union and they all decided against forming their own denomination. But if VSEKh ever turns into a church, then the temptation to join up will be too strong to resist. They will finally have something very concrete to show for their efforts.”
The observers all seemed to agree in Hotel Izmailovo: For now, VSEKh is only a network and not a church. At present, it is only a conglomerate without clear profile. It consists among others of Baptists, Evangelical-Christians, Charismatics, Messianic Jews, Calvinists and Arminians. The Presbyterian and Five-Point-Calvinist Valerian Ten hopes to turn VSEKh into a church, yet his theology has insufficient support. But many others are also convinced that within time the network will become a church. In the strict sense, Evangelical-Christians have already formed their own small denominations.
A major factor for Russia’s Protestant landscape is whether the RUECB intends to compete with VSEKh for control of the wide turf between Baptist subculture and the Charismatic world. Will RUECB congregations on the grassroots level be flexible enough? Will they be able to concentrate on the true essence of the Gospel? In Moscow it was stated: “If the RUECB chooses to uphold tradition, then it will be inviting a powerful competitor – VSEKh – into its own house.” But there indeed are signs that some youthful Baptist pastors are aiming for the gap in the middle.
The historical Baptist Union – the RUECB – remains the largest, unified Protestant church in today’s Russia. There indeed are indications that it can integrate middle-of-the-road forces. It is also likely that the advocates of VSEKh exaggerate their own strength as well as the weakness of the other side. VSEKh is also managed in a hierarchic fashion – unavoidable in view of the massive monetary gap between top and bottom.
A competitive struggle is emerging between VSEKh and the Charismatics on one hand vis a vis the RUECB and its allies on the other. VSEKh intends to put an end to the RUECB’s long-term role as the first among equals in Protestant relations with government and Orthodoxy. But this conflict sheds negative light on the public reputation of Protestants. Western churches and missions should therefore not use their words and finances to deepen this internal Baptist split. Some still cherish the hope that Alexander Semchenko and his many projects might find their way back into the RUECB’s fold. They are needed there badly, and the differences are much more of style than of content. For that to occur, heavy portions of flexibility, patience and endurance would be needed on all sides.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 11 May 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-07, 1.727 words, 11.047 keystrokes and spaces.
Head Start or Crisis?
The Russian Longing for the Christian State
M o s c o w – Russia is „even now the best part of Europe and we offer it the most positive future”. The well-known Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Chairman of the Orthodox “Synod Office for Mutual Relations between Church and Society”, stated this in early April on television network “Rossiya I”’s programme “Duell”. Chaplin is convinced that the West, including the USA, no longer qualifiies as Christian. The West indeed represents the most godless system of all. Both commujnsm and Bolshevism were brought down by their godlessness; “capitalism will fare no better”. Only Russia can become that which the West once was.
At a Moscow conference of the „Christian Responsibility for the Earthly Fatherland” on 8 April, Chaplin added that the Christian nation of Russia is obtaining a “unique moral mission” which reveals itself in a “call to national modesty, self-restraint and the rejection of consumption”. Russia already has a head start on the Western nations: Already a third of the Russian populace are “practicing (Orthodox) Christians”; the majority is driven by lofty and supernatural ideals. Fruits of the new Christian upbringing are already manifest: A significant majority “reject money and selfish interests” as their personal goals.
Chaplin is convinced that the past vision of a Christian Russia is returning: “It is obvious today that the nation and church are one.” “The Russian people will again become a Christian nation, a Holy (Kievan) Rus, even if this does not please everybody.” Another speaker at this Moscow conference spoke of the possibility of a “theocentric” society.
This „theocentric“ orientation can also be sensed in socially-open Protestant circles (Charismatics and some Baptists for ex.), who see in the struggle for “traditional Christian values” a common cause for cooperation with the Orthodox. The Orthodox and these Protestants also sympathise with something akin to “civil religion” – the cooperation of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the defense of proven moral values.
Yet the views of Protestants and conservative Orthodox on the interpretation of the Russian past and present are far apart. In a lecture at a Moscow gymnasium on 11 April, Yuri Sipko, ex-President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, spoke, not of a moral superiority, but instead of a deep crisis in Russian society.
The Soviet past has not been sufficiently processed, Sipko stated. “We therefore have no clear understanding of who we really are.” In contrast to Chaplin, this Baptist described Russian society as “immature”. The country’s ethnic groupings have “no sense of consolidation, no mutual values and objectives”. The ethnic nations have “no common understanding – we are economically and socially stratified.”
He also described the role of the country’s majority church as highly problematic: “Christianity’s tragedy is evident in the fact that it has permitted untruth to reign in our society.” This results in the general impression “that we are only playing Christianity and church”. This leads to mistrust and cynicism among our children. Yet a renewal can only occur “once we admit to ourselves that we are sick”.
Alexander Negrov, Rector of the Protestant “St. Petersburg Christian University”, responded to Chaplin’s statements: “I of course agree that without real faith in Christ there is no hope of a bright future either for the individual or the nation.” But he rejected Chaplin’s projection that Moscow might again become the “Third Rome” (after Rome and Constantinople). “I do not share Father Chaplin’s optimism about Russian becoming the best part of Europe - one can only claim that for reasons of propaganda.”
The conference on 8 April was also attended by three Christian-Democratic politicians from the Netherlands. Orthodox, as well as some Charismatic forces and the Evangelical-Christian Bishop Alexander Semchenko, seek contact with Christian-Democratic circles in Western Europe. The Moscow barrister Katya Smyslova, one of this conference’s primary organisers, transferred her membership from the Baptist to the Orthodox church in early 2010.
Additional, unrelated information
The Charismatic Igor Tumash, a member of Minsk/Belarus’ large “New Life” congregation, miraculously survived the bombing of the subway station “Oktyabrskaja” on 11 April. That attack injured many and cost the lives of 13 persons. He reported: “I was only five metres away from the detonation and felt the entire blast. I was covered with blood, but I later discovered that it was only the blood of others.” His congregation is incidentally also concerned about Christian-Democratic policies – Tumash was enroute to a church meeting entitled “We are saving the nation.” Sergey Lukanin, the barrister of this congregation (which meets in a massive, renovated cattle barn), had been on that subway platform along with his family only 15 minutes prior to the explosion.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 18 April 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-06, 809 words, 5.182 keystrokes and spaces.
The EAU is Up-and-Coming
A major convention is planned for this year
M o s c o w – The „Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ (EAF) in the area of the former Soviet Union is up-and-coming. It is presently organising a major convention scheduled to take place in Kiev on 28 and 29 October 2011. This was made official during a press conference at the Moscow seminary of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” on 25 March.
According to Alexander Firisiuk from the Belarusian Union in Minsk, the EAF was formed at the USSR’s demise “in order to preserve our dialogue and unity of Spirit. We indeed have remained one family in Christ.” The EAF is also the entity which reminds one most readily of the giant, Soviet-era All-Union Council of Baptists. Vyacheslav Nesteruk, President of the Ukrainian Union, added: “Conversing with one another is a very pleasant matter. When I travel to Moscow and meet the brethren, I feel as if I have returned home.”
During the press gathering, the Federation’s spokespersons stressed their positive relations with the Prague-based “European Baptist Federation” (EBF) – most ex-Soviet unions belong to both federations. But it was added that the EAF regards itself to be more conservative. RUECB-President Alexey Smirnow noted: “It is very important that we demonstrate our unity in Christ to the world. Liberalism attacks not only the mind, it also divides the world into factions and subjects people to all kinds of convictions and opinions.”
One speaks English in the EBF, but Russian remains the EAF’s lingua franca. The unions of 15 countries now form the EAF – the primary unions of the three Baltic states and Georgia are no longer members. But these countries also possess groups of Russian-speaking Baptists who count themselves a part of the EAF. The Baltic states for ex. have a significant number of Ukrainian Baptist residents. In contrast to the EBF, the EAF, which is headed by the Muscovite Yuri Apatov, has no legal status.
It was actually a cross-border work among youth led by parlamentarian Pavel Unguryan (Kiev) and Pastor Yevgeny Bakhmutsky (Moscow) which revived the EAF from its slumber. In August 2008, an impressive youth conference with nearly 3.000 participants from 19 countries was held near Odessa. Each year in February, a working conference for youth leaders takes place near Moscow under EAF auspices. In August 2009, immediately after the Amsterdam conference commemorating the 400th anniversary of the European Baptist movement, a similar, Russian-language conference was held in Kiev with 1.700 adults in attendance.
This year’s conference in October is to be held under the motto of Philippians 3,13: „Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead.” One leading speaker is to be John MacArthur from Sun Valley/California – he has been active in the countries of the former USSR for more than 20 years and is well-known in Eastern Europe. “The Master’s Academy International“, which he heads, now has branches for ex. in Samara/Volga and in Irpin near Kiev (the Baptist “Irpin Biblical Seminary”).
The EAF’s return to the scene is also supported by the fact that Russia’s inter-confessional bodies have lost their momentum. The EAF offers Baptist unions once again the opportunity to form coalitions beyond the boundaries of their own union. Russian Orthodoxy and the state are already pushing the significance of Kievan Rus, the medieval union of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
On 23 March, Moscow’s venerable „First Baptist Church“ celebrated the graduation of one of the most-experienced classes in the history of European evangelicalism. Sixteen of the RUECB’s superintendents (called “starshy presbyter” in Russian) received a Masters degree from “Moscow Theological Seminary”. Some of these clergymen had no previous academic degree in theology. Over the past three years they had prepared themselves for their final exams mainly through studies by extension. In conjunction with the Union Council, which meets twice annually, they had usually come a week earlier to Moscow in order to attend lectures on campus. Primary guest speaker at this graduation was the Moldovan pastor and politician Valeriu Ghiletchi (Chisinau), the EBF’s current President.
Alexey Smirnov has now been President of the RUECB for exactly one year. That was one reason why the Union Council, which lasted until 25 March, was concerned more than ever with numbers. Yevgeny Bakhmutsky, the Union’s Senior Vice President, explained: “We want to obtain a true picture of developments within our brotherhood. We want to discover how things really look among us and where we are headed.” He is concerned above all with the recruitment and preparation of further pastors for congregational work.
The webpages of the RUECB’s Missions Department report on two expeditions taking place during February and March. Missionary expeditions even during the coldest times of the year have proven their worth – they have been taking place for a decade. The Russian East then has more ice (better roadways) and fewer flies than in the summer. Both expeditions aimed to visit as many prisons and penal colonies as possible; one travelled primarily in the southwest (for ex. Tambov, Voronesh, Tula and Belgorod), the other in the central Siberian regions of Krasnoyarsk, Khakassia and Tuva. The western expedition terminated on 24 March after having visited 21 colonies and 3 rehab centres as well as 15 churches. Since many inmates were or are addicts, not only spiritual literature was distributed. Information on evangelical rehab centres which can be looked up following release from prison was also supplied. The number of listeners at meetings ranged from four to 250; the youngest listeners in special schools were only 10 years old. Employees and administration were frequently also present. The testimonies of missionaries who themselves were once addicted or incarcerated has proven to be particularly effective.
The RUECB, Russia´s largest unified Protestant church, represents nearly 80.000 adult members in 1.750 congregations and groups.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 05 April 2011
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. Release #11-5, 959 words, 6.104 keystrokes and spaces.
„God Will be With Us“
Decisions reached at the ELCER’s Moscow synod
M o s c o w – Rev. Dietrich Brauer was inaugurated as Bishop of the „Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia” (ELCER) in Moscow’s St. Peter-and-Paul- Cathedral on 12 March. At the ELCER’s synod in nearby Pushkino, Brauer had been elected unanimously to serve as the new ELCER Bishop. Superintendent (Propst) Vladimir Provorov of Ulyanovsk/Volga was appointed his deputy. The ELCER is one of the seven regional churches forming the St. Petersburg-based “Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Central Asia” (ELCROS). Provorov is also President of the ELCROS synod. The church’s Archbishop is August Kruse of St. Petersburg.
Brauer’s election was a cause for elation and gratitude. At 28 years of age, he is undoubtedly one of Europe’s youngest and most energetic Protestant bishops. Siegfried Springer (born 1930) had served in this position from 1992 to 2007. He was succeeded by another German citizen, Edmund Ratz (born 1933), who served simultaneously as ELCROS-Archbishop until 2010. Brauer began his first term as the Moscow-based Interim Bishop in early Summer 2010. He had served with great success as Pastor in the Gusev/Gumbinnen region in the once-German enclave of Kaliningrad/Königsberg from 2005 to 2010. The service of his spouse, Tatiana Petrenko, who is also ordained, had contributed to the fruits of their efforts in Gusev. (Both of them are from the former USSR.)
Yet the new Bishop has had to overcome major difficulties during his first months in Moscow. On 19 August 2010, an unmarried, 26-year-old member of the congregation, Andrey Pautov, took his own life. Pautov, who was incorrectly labelled a pastor by Russian media, had expended considerable effort in recent years to preserve the historic German church structure in Gnadentau (Volgograd region).
Accused of personal immorality, Dimitry Lotov (born 1965) and Dietrich von Bülow-Sternbeck (born 1966) were removed from office shortly thereafter. Lotov, known for his high-church, strongly-sacramentalist convictions, had served as pastor of the Russian-speaking congregation in Peter-and-Paul since 1997. Bülow-Sternbeck had served in the same capacity for the German-speaking congregation since Autumn 2009.
The synod in Pushkino now confirmed the cancellation of all ordination rights for both men. Now serving in a pastoral capacity for the two congregations at Peter-and-Paul is Andrey Bobylev. Yet Lotov continues to refuse acceptance of the Bishop’s and synod’s verdicts. Due to complaints from congregations, the synod also terminated ELCER’s long-time administrative head, Alexander Zerr.
A pastor from the Volga region stated privately at the recent synod: “I think we as a church are going through a period of spiritual testing and maturation. I’m optimistic about the future. God will be with us!”
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 29 March 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-03, 430 words, 2.854 keystrokes and spaces.
Becoming a Voice for National Unity
Moscow’s “National Prayer Breakfast” has a new format
M o s c o w -- On 15 March, approximately 200 religious and secular leaders gathered in Moscow’s exclusive “President-Hotel” for the 11th Russian National Prayer Breakfast since its inception in 1995. This year’s gathering, which was entitled “Russia – a Multi-National and Multi-Cultural Country”, was marked by Nikolay Svanidze’s impassioned call for Russian society to address the crying social and economic needs of its young. Svanidze, a prominent TV journalist and head of the state-run “Commission of the Public Chambre for Multi-National Relations and Freedom of Conscience”, decried the aggressive, xenophobic nationalism increasingly prominent among the nation’s young. Millions of youth are suffering from “poverty, crudity, violence and unjust courts and are seeking a release for their aggressive emotions”. He described the state’s propaganda for the young as promoting xenophobia and being “majestically-superfluous and nationalistic in character".
Svanidze noted that Russia’s “patriotic” societies and media have described the earthquakes in Japan as just “punishment for encroaching upon our rights to the Kuril Islands” just off the Japanese coast. This is an expression of our total lack of pity for the needy of Japan and elsewhere. He branded this inhumane reaction “a result of our moral isolationism, a post-imperial syndrome”. He consequently appealed for a “national programme teaching respect for one another, something almost completely absent from our country”. “Social escalator” programmes could instil in the young a sense of hope for the future. Russians too must learn that all of us are first-of-all simply human beings without ethnic or confessional boundaries.
Unity was the order of the day. Sergey Melnikov, Head Secretary of the “Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the President of the Russian Federation”, cited the terrorist attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on 24 January which killed 37 and injured 180. He remarked that thanks to blood donations, “the blood in the veins of the survivors was merged with the blood of those from differing faiths”. This symbolises Russia’s existence as a united and single organism. Akhmad Garifullin, a deputy of Moscow’s head mufti, noted that the USSR’s victory over fascism was only possible because the nation acted as one organism irrespective of individual confession. Today‘s challenges demand a similar amount of unity: “Prayer is the weapon of the believers. We stand together in the struggle against terror.”
As a sidelight, Alexander Torshin, First Vice-Chairman of the Council of the Russian Federation (Upper House), explained the traditional Russian aversion to the term “tolerance”. Along with the positive connotations of friendship and mutual respect, it is to the Russian mind also associated with undue acceptance of “injustice, crudity and lack of culture”. Tolerance can mean, in English terms, that “anything goes”.
The event’s new format
“We Baptists never got to put in a word of our own!” one Baptist worker complained following the event. The Russian Prayer Breakfast has traditionally been a forum largely for the self-presentation of Protestant churches and organisations. So this year’s format, in which the lectures and greetings were limited to politicians as well as one Catholic, Muslim and Jewish representative, was a significant remake. Protestant leaders such as the Charismatic Sergey Ryakhovsky and the Pentecostal Eduard Grabovenko remained silent; the powerful businessman, bishop and ex-Baptist Alexander Semchenko did not even attend. The two Protestants who spoke were Pavel Sautov at the opening and his young deputy, Vyacheslav Starikov, at the close. Both are from the small “Russian Association of Independent Evangelical Churches”. Nearly a year ago, Sautov replaced the Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko as Chairman of the Board for the "National Prayer Breakfast Fund”. Vlasenko is presently the Prayer Breakfast’s deputy head.
Thanks to its brand-new format, this smaller and briefer Prayer Breakfast was not without hiccups. In a vast departure from Russian tradition, the audience usually did not rise from their tables for prayer. The prayers from the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim speakers seemed to be more read than prayed.
Alexander Torshin, a veteran participant at Washington’s National Prayer Breakfast, explained in his short speech the intended future direction of the Russian movement. In agreement with the North American model, the Russian event is intended to become more of a presentation from and for politicians – not clergy. That is something quite different from the past Protestant event attended by a few politicians. Torshin reported that he was impressed by President Barack Obama’s speech at the Washington Prayer Breakfast on 3 February. Leaving politics completely aside, the US-President had spoken about his own personal pilgrimage of faith.
Torshin regards Russian politicians publically testifying of their personal faith to be a distant dream, but he does believe that prayer gatherings will begin to take place within the Russian Duma and Parliament in the coming months. (See his Russian-language website: “www.torshin.ru”.) In his speech on 15 March, he described the prayers and gatherings of small groups of believing politicians as a unifying force, as “soft diplomacy promoting the resolution of conflicts” in a highly-contentious society. A friend of Protestants, Torshin had in 2008 invited Western farmers and tradespeople to return and resettle a part of the vast Russian plains.
Criticism of the Breakfast’s new format centers on the fear that the event may not remain explicitly Christian. Evgeny Bakhmutsky, Senior Vice-President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, stated in an interview that he missed Christ-centered praying among the Protestant speakers.
For the first time in years, not a single Orthodox cleric was visible at the event. The Moscow Patriarchate explains increasingly that the Prayer Breakfast’s format does not sync with Orthodox convictions. In the Orthodox tradition, public prayers need to be prayed by Orthodox clergy, and joint prayer with non-Orthodox Christians is now discouraged. Consequently, the Orthodox are championing their own inter-confessional forum. Its first public sessions may take place as early as Fall 2011.
Yet Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast movement is far from dead. A similar Breakfast was held in St. Petersburg on 22 March; another will take place in Krasnoyarsk/Siberia in April. Next year’s Moscow event is scheduled for 13 March.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 21 March 2011
This release is informational in character and expresses only the views and assessments of its author. Release #11-02, 995, 6.558 keystrokes and spaces.
"Our Hands are Tied“
Conditions for youth among the unregistered Baptists and Pentecostals
M o s c o w – The government is still the adversary for the unregistered Baptists and Pentecostals of the former Soviet Union – but other governments are now involved. Thanks to the 30-year-old emigration wave, most of the government adversaries are now located in Germany and in the USA’s Pacific Northwest. Russia still has roughly 25.000 unregistered, adult Baptists – about 16% of the number present in the USSR in 1966. A good 100.000 Slavic Baptists and Pentecostals are now gathered in the region of Portland/Oregon; a similar number has gravitated towards Sacramento/California. Consequently, unregistered Baptists now call themselves „International Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“.
A report out of Portland, which was published by Moscow’s “Portal-Credo” press service on 28 February, describes in harrowing terms the emotional plight of immigrant Russian and Ukrainian parents who now need to come to terms with offspring in a completely different cultural context. This report claims that half to two-thirds of their high schoolers are now leading a double life. Long stints are needed in school bathrooms before and after class to undertake the changes necessary to meet the approval of two very different surroundings.
But drugs, prostitution and violent crime are also topics. David Klassen, the pastor of a Slavic congregation in Gresham/Oregon, stated: “Many from the older generation had spent time in Soviet prisons for their faith. But now their children qualify as bandits and are imprisoned for that reason. This of course breaks their parents’ hearts.”
The longing for material prosperity lured these people abroad. But primary was also the desire to retain one’s Soviet-inspired faith in new surroundings fully free of atheistic and Orthodox repression. Yet all parties had apparently not been consulted – the offspring for ex. The West’s cultural steamroller now quickly and deftly detaches these children from their parents. One succinct sentence states: “Emigration has increased the gap between the generations.”
Having the fortified and united congregation turn back surrounding forces appears much less effective in the North American context. Untrained lay pastors from back home are no match for the challenges of a new society. Yet it would be a disgrace for these mentally-needy families to seek the aid of secular, state-controlled social services. The father and pastor – the patriarchs – are called to take care of affairs. These new arrivals head for construction sites and car repair garages in their search for quick cash; their women are called to take care of the flock of children. There is no space for extensive cultural training.
A suffering mother from the Carpathian region of Ukraine complained that her children threatened her with the police when she spoke of possible corporal punishment. In America, children are able to dictate the terms to their parents. A Russian-speaking school social worker claimed: “Some parents don’t even ask their children about the homework out of fear that the state might take away their children.”
The court proceedings in Salem
That fear is not groundless. During the second half of 2009, the world was able to witness via Internet (for ex. www.examiner.com) court proceedings in Salem/Oregon which ended with the parents of seven children being sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Following floggings, the three oldest children of Oleksandr and Lyudmila Kozlov had reported affairs to the police. A gut-wrenching spectacle resulted by which the six minors testified against their parents in court. (The seventh child was then only several months old.) One heading in the local media read: “Parents on Trial Use Bible to Justify Child Abuse.” Four near-by immigrant congregations supplied up to 100 protesters to picket the courthouse.
Sentences were heightened by the parent’s unwillingness to recognise the apparent folly of their ways. Bible-toting Lyudmila Kozlova compared herself to the Prophet Daniel surrounded by lions and human enemies. The couple refused to respect court etiquette and judge-ordered instructions. Without even the slightest of evidence, the father accused state officials of drugging his children prior to testimony and using Photoshop to digitally worsen the photos of the flogging wounds. A deacon from the couple’s congregation, “First Slavic Church”, assured that he would have refused to report to the police if he personally had discovered any photos of this kind - even if this would have meant his imprisonment.
Transatlantic support arrived – also from Russia. A letter on the “International Council’s” website (http://iucecb.com) from 26 August 2009 addressed to US-President Barack Obama vouched for the couple’s complete innocence. This mostly Russian-language site contains an increasing number of protests against measures taken by Western governments against their own members. It also appeals for the rights of those parents campaigning for home-schooling in Germany (where it is still illegal). A letter of 19 February 2011 addressed to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding seven parents jailed for short terms states: “We are very concerned about the persecution of our brothers and sisters in the faith . . . in Salzkotten. They are being persecuted because they desire to bring up their children in the Christian faith and in obedience to God’s word. They have not permitted their children to participate in class instruction on sex and in godless theatre plays.”
Events in Salem 2009 and elsewhere have seriously compromised suffering at the hands of Soviet authorities as portrayed by the non-registered. Had these people truly been persecuted for their faith, or had they on occasion confused their own (sub)cultural values with the Christian faith? That would appear to be the case in the USA – and was the situation in the by-gone USSR always entirely different from the present one? Has this mix-up only come into being since 1990?
The saga has many tragic elements. Parents have done what they regarded as the best for their children – yet the result was imprisonment. (Though I cannot claim that this was the case in Salem.) Non-registered Baptists and Pentecostals believe they have been motivated by love – yet those on the other side have sometimes interpreted that as contempt. A US-missionary in Russia even claims that relations of the non-registered to other evangelicals are governed “by hate”. Obviously, much distance can accrue between our intentions and their results. „Our hands are tied!“ the suffering mother from the Carpathian mountains moaned. Yet that sentence is pregnant with multiple interpretations. One side can respond with sadness, the other with joy and relief.
These developments are not new – reports circulated early in the 1990s about tensions between the differing generations of recent Slavic immigrants in Pennsylvania. But there are also hopeful signs on the horizon. Olga Parker, a therapist for “Lutheran Community Services Northwest”, noted that flexibility could be the key to greater success. “Russian-speaking parents need to understand that rapport with children is much more important than strictness and precision.”
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 16 March 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-01, 1.114 words, 7.214 keystrokes and spaces.
A note from Baptist offices:
Ruvim Voloshin, Missions Director for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, has taken a leave of absence which will last not less than one year. Interim Missions Director is Mikhail Zhdan. Voloshin will continue to serve as a pastor in Moscow´s “Second Baptist Church”.