Religion Law Opens the Door to Harassment

When Russia passed its law on religion, everyone from the Vatican to the U.S. White House to the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out against it. Now some small churches claim that local governments have taken the law as a wink from the Kremlin that they are free to harass competitors to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Svetlana Demina reports.

THE missionaries of the ecumenical Christian church Miloserdiye used to be met warmly when they would visit small villages outside of St. Petersburg.

"We used to find a very good reception in those villages," said Yury Davydkin, 46 and the pastor of Miloserdiye (which is Russian for "Mercy"). "Local authorities could clearly see that our missionary work was bearing fruit. We helped people to come back to normal life. As you know, villages are in an agony of hard drinking and drug addiction."

All of that changed in October, Davydkin says, when President Boris Yeltsin signed into law a bill granting special status to Russia's Orthodox Church. Immediately afterwards, Davydkin said, Miloserdiye's missionary work in the villages ground to a halt.

"The scheme of harassment in these villages was always the same," Pastor Davydkin said. "The directors of the Houses of Culture where we held our meetings would raise our rent payments. Next, local Orthodox activists would find supporters in the local administration [to drive us out of town].

"In the village of Zhabino, for example, the initiator of a 'get lost' campaign was a local school teacher. Activists like her encouraged all the villagers to drive away the foreign 'non-traditional' missions. As a result, we find it very hard to keep preaching. Some local administrations just want us gone."

Moreover, Miloserdiye is based in an apartment building in Gatchina, a suburb of St. Petersburg. When the group began to have problems with the rent, it appealed to the Gatchina city administration for help.

The response was a visit by an "Independent Deputy Commission" from the local legislature to investigate the church; a visit two days later by the tax inspectorate; and subsequent visits by the fire and health departments.

"Who is going to be next?" Davydkin asked. "I think that it is really surprising that organizations which for years have never taken any interest in this church's activity all of a sudden take a very keen interest in it. The scheme of harassment seems quite clear: First you have visitors from an Independent Deputy Commission or the like, next from the tax inspect orate and in the end maybe the Anti-Economic Crime Police - whose [eventual] visit we still aren't ruling out."

Davydkin and Miloserdiye are apparently lucky, however: They can count among their friends and supporters the mayor of Gatchina, Stanislav Bogdanov. With Bogdanov's help, not only did Miloserdiye survive the gauntlet of inspections, they also got tax-funded assistance to pay their rent.

Other small churches have been less fortunate.

"We keep receiving requests from churches, our members, which are facing religious harassment," said Igor Nikitin, who heads the Association of Christian Churches of Russia, an umbrella advocacy group for such non-Orthodox Christian churches.

"Unfortunately, the current law can be interpreted too freely. It leaves too much room for all kinds of conjecture convenient for those officials who dislike a church, a pastor or a parish for some reason... Of course, the new law sounded to them like a trumpet call.

"Local authorities in small villages and towns immediately felt like they were authorized to start harassing their parishes. In big cities like Moscow and St.Petersburg such harassment is not as noticeable, and probably not as feasible, as in the provinces."

The harassment, Nikitin added, has beefed up his association's membership, which has gone from 12 churches before the law was signed to 45 churches today, and more joining all the time.

Russia's religion law was also met with dismay in the West. The Vatican protested it in a statement; the Archbishop of Canterbury criticized it; and the U.S. White House lobbied Yeltsin until the last minute not to sign it.

Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and adherents of other faiths the law describes as "non-traditional" sects say the law is discriminatory because of a provision requiring faiths to register with the state and get its approval before they can preach or publish in Russia.

Regardless of the motives of those championing the law, critics contended that its approval would be greeted as a wink from the Kremlin to local authorities - a signal that they are now free to harass non-Orthodox faiths, particularly evangelical Christian groups, who have gained many converts in post-Soviet Russia.

Now, after three months and two Christmas holidays- the Western Dec. 25 and the Orthodox Jan. 7 - isolated reports of local harassment are indeed trickling in:

A Protestant mission that until recently had worked with prisoners in St. Petersburg jails has been barred by authorities, who have cited the religion law and demanded they register their organization.

"We were getting along well with the city police," said the head of this mission, who did not want either himself or his group to be named. "We had signed an agreement with the city police that our mission would have permanent access to local jails ... However, a few weeks ago the same police official with whom we used to have small friendly tea parties informed me that this agreement would soon be broken, by a seven-man commission of police and Orthodox Church officials that has just been formed."

The Salvation Army was recently warned that it was to be evicted from its meeting hall at 19 Bolshaya Monetnaya Ulitsa. Svetlana Maznova, director of social programs for the group, said the director of the hall changed his mind after he was told of the group's local charity work.

At the Moscow offices of the Orthodox Society of Sincere Piety, or Peter's Commune, followers were searched and threatened by police officers, according to Gleb Yakunin, a former Russian Orthodox priest who is outspoken on religious matters.

Various other minor cases of harassment have been reported in Siberia, Southern Russia and the Russian Far North by Russian media and by the Keston News Service, which tracks religious news.

Supporters of the law have argued that it is a necessary tool in the fight to control dangerous sects, which have flourished in Russia in recent years.

They point to the White Brotherhood, a Ukrainian cult whose leader Maria Devy Kristos was arrested in 1993, or to Aum Shinryko, the Japanese cult that carried out a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 and injured 5,000.

White Brotherhood members gathered November 1993 in Kiev to witness an apocalypse they expected; police who eventually broke up the disappointed gathering were left with several hundred children who claimed Kristos as their only family.

Aum had 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 members in Russia. Investigators say Aum got its sarin nerve gas from Russia, while some Russian media have suggested Aum was stockpiling sarin for a similar terrorist attack on the Moscow metro. It has since been disbanded, at least officially.

More recently and locally, this summer St. Petersburg police arrested Takhir Vishnyakov, a 36-year-old hypnotist and the leader of an obscure cult called the Galactic Federation, on suspicion of sexually abusing children.

Police said they made the arrest during a Galactic Federation ritual orgy involving 20 cult members and their children at the House of Culture in the town of Levashovo, 20 kilometers northeast of St. Petersburg.

"Before this [religion] law took effect, it used to be too easy ... for so many foreign cults and sects to sneak into Russia," said Yury Novolodsky, a deputy of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. "This law is not interfering in the life of religious organizations, only in those manifestations of religion that are dangerous for society."

Critics of the law - among them the fiery Yakunin - respond that dangerous sects are already covered by criminal law.

"There are really very few cults," said Yakunin in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times. "Besides, as a rule the destructive ones don't register [with the authorities]."

"The most dangerous destructive totalitarian sect is the Moscow Patriarchy, which has discredited itself to the extent that Russia is destined to become a Protestant country in ten years," added Yakunin, a Soviet-era dissident and priest who was excommunicated by the Russian church for his political views, and is now a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Yakunin is among a handful of critics of the Russian Orthodox Church who argue that it only survived Soviet rule because it allowed itself to be infiltrated by the KGB. Today, the Orthodox Church is also often criticized for its extensive business dealings, which include oil-export and tobacco-import deals worth millions of dollars.

"The Russian Orthodox Church is a Chekist mafia," stated Yakunin flatly. (A Chekist was a member of the Cheka, an organization Lenin founded as the forerunner of the KGB).

"[The church] has not been able to survive under the conditions of democracy. This is why this law was lobbied by the Moscow Patriarchy along with the Communists - in an attempt to restore its power and get even richer."

One thing both supporters and critics of the religion law agree upon is that the real meaning of the legislation will be defined in the by-laws - a packet of legislation the Russian parliament may pass any day now that will fill in many of the details of how the sweeping and general religion law should be enforced.

"This is a country of by-laws. Everyone is waiting for them," said Dmitry Silchenko, a St. Petersburg lawyer who specializes in religious law.

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