Religions Compete in Russia

By KAREN OGDEN
Associated Press Writer
Saturday, December 28, 1996 4:20 pm EST

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (AP) -- Americans Mick and Sherrie Ewing were among the first foreign missionaries to go to Russia's Far East five years ago, and their reception was overwhelming.

``People would mob us,'' recalled Mick Ewing, formerly a pastor in Juneau, Alaska. ``We thought people were spiritually hungry.''

Since then the country has been flooded by missionaries and it's a lot harder to gather a crowd. Recalling the enthusiasm that greeted his arrival, Ewing said, ``Now we realize that a lot of it was just curiosity.''

Missionaries descended on Russia in the wake of the Soviet breakup that marked the end of religious restrictions imposed during Communist rule.

But the initial interest in them has waned in many areas, and Russia's Orthodox Church is openly critical of foreign mission work, which it sees as an affront to its leading role in religious affairs.

In the Vladivostok region, there are 130 registered churches, temples and other religious centers, nearly all of them introduced by foreigners in the past five years, according to the department of Political Parties, Public Organizations and Religious Groups.

They range from a traveling Danish Buddhist lama to a Hare Krishna cafe to a small congregation established by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

At St. Nicholas Cathedral, part of the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Igor Talko was less than thrilled by the influx.

``Imagine your house. You're a master in it and I come to your house and enforce my rules over yours,'' said the robed and bearded priest.

Similar views hold sway at the national level. Top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church recently said it would not be ``appropriate'' for Pope John Paul II to visit Russia -- even though no such visit was planned.

Alexander Lebed, one of Russia's most popular politicians, said last summer that Mormons and other non-Russian religions were ``filth and scum'' and vowed to ban them from Russia. He later apologized to ``the poor Mormons.''

Talko also complained that foreigners have an unfair monetary advantage over the Russian church.

L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology, which has a center in Vladivostok, offers stylish books that are visually far more appealing than the cheaply printed literature sold at a shop at Talko's cathedral.

``We don't have as many opportunities to influence people as other groups do,'' the priest said. ``Many (foreign) groups print books and some rent huge places to meet with people. They have huge funds for that.''

Despite the resistance, the foreign churches have loyal followers.

Vladivostok's Mormon church, which consists of several American families and 25 Russian members, holds its Sunday services in a rented hall at a sanatorium. Baptisms are done in a public bathhouse.

Yuri Kurashov, the deputy director of a local coal mining company, joined the church earlier this year after several years of bible study, first with the Baptists and then the Mormons.

``About five years ago I had very difficult days and nights where I thought about the aim of my life,'' he said. ``I began to study the Bible page by page, very slowly, and I liked the Bible more and more every day.''

He credits the missionaries with helping change his life.

``I like the missionaries and their families very much,'' he said.

Copyright 1996 The Associated Press