04.11.2016

Brothers and Sisters in All Camps

Russian Pentecostals hold their annual Moscow conference

M o s c o w – The big-time events produced by the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE) are memorable. Among Russia´s Protestants, no one demonstrates greater talent in holding them. On 18 October, roughly 50 guests of honour from church and politics showed up for its annual conference (“Maly Sobor”) in Moscow’s “Word of Life”, the city’s largest Protestant congregation. In addition to written greetings, approximately 25 words of greeting were delivered from the stage. Besides a Catholic and an Orthodox representative, the front row included two men in white turbans. Orthodox and Muslim representatives addressed the assembly with “brothers and sisters”. The Muslims too were heartily embraced by the primary host, Senior Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky. Even the Russian Baptist Union, which exited from the “Advisory Council for the Heads of the Protestant Churches of Russia” a year ago, offered a word of greeting. 

Only the mischievous ROSKhVE has thought of inviting the politician Irina Yarovaya to a major church event. As instigator of the controversial, anti-mission legislation known as the “Yarovaya Laws”, she qualifies as one of the Protestant movement’s primary adversaries. Until Vladimir Putin signed the legislation in July, Protestants had done a major amount of praying in hopes of stopping its passage. Yarovaya didn’t show, but the ROSKhVE was most concerned about expressing good will to this Orthodox politician in Vladimir Putin’s party. In a speech, the Senior Bishop assured that the “Yarowaya Laws” had demonstrated the significance of mission and thereby stimulated Protestants to expend even greater effort on the behalf of mission.

The politicians and church leaders – including the Muslims – pointed repeatedly to the existence of common goals. That sounded as follows in the greeting from the representative of the Orthodox office for external affairs, monk-priest Stefan: “We have our differences, but we also share a common platform. We share a commitment to upholding the moral rudiments of our life and jointly support a patriotic position.”

Yet the ROSKhVE’s position contains an apparent contradition: On the one hand, it can only be described as Russian Orthodoxy’s primary competitor. Its offensive mission work and rejection of Russia’s typically melancholy and inward-oriented religiosity are immediately apparent. The style, volume and content of its music – the pandemonium stretches from Bach to Broadway and heavy metal – is very much a reflection of the globalised Pentecostal and Charismatic movement. (There was an expection on this evening: an excellent, classical rendition of Russia’s national anthem.) On the other hand, this practice is combined with clear professions of loyalty to the Russian state.

In both Kiev and Moscow, the Charismatics are known for loyalty to their respective governments. Charismatics are simply more flexible than most. ROSKhVE consists primarily of people who found their way to the faith after 1990; they lack the burden of a centuries-old tradition. More than a few of its pastors are retired Red Army officers.

Sergey Filinov, the pastor of a Pentecostal congregation in Moscow not belonging to the ROSKhVE, notices a growing distance between it and the North American prototype. He reports that younger pastors take national integration seriously; a number of them have spent time at St. Petersburg’s Orthodox “Russian Christian Humanitarian Academy”. “These pastors are doing their homework,” he insists. “They think differently from many in the West.” In this context, one is reminded of the ROSKhVE congregation in Penza (see our release from 27 June 2015.)

The ROSKhVE has roughly 400.000 members, making it significantly larger than the original Pentecostal denomination: the “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith” (RCCEF) headed by Bishop Eduard Grabovenko of Perm.

The Yarovaya Laws
Despite all apparent euphoria that evening, the grievances throughout the country were mentioned briefly. The barrister (lawyer) Vladimir Ryakhovsky (a brother of Sergey) stated bluntly: “We are gathered here in a brotherly fashion, but we have hassles in the countryside.” At least three words of greeting mentioned the Yarovaya Laws. One politician asserted: “Laws we have enough – all we still lack are good ones.” Another concluded: “Three steps forward are always combined with one step backwards.” By that he meant the new legislation.

Very soon after the passing of the new laws on 7 July, the so-called „Ryakhovsky Ruler“ appeared. In this text, the „Slavic Legal Centre’s“ Vladimir Ryakhovsky attempts to describe a missionary activity as defined by the new legislation. He narrows it down to five conditions: It needs to involve a religious organisation, the active person must have a mandate from his organisation, the activity is publicly disseminated, information is passed on to persons not belonging to the organisation, and information is passed on in the hope of obtaining additional members. If even one of these conditions is not met, then it is not a missionary activity as defined by Yarovaya.

Sergey Filinov points out that the 10 convictions decreed during September and October were not based on the new legislation. “Our church barristers reacted quickly,” he reports. The diligent „Slavic Legal Centre“ appears to counsel the accused both quickly and thoroughly.

Pastor Filinov reports that politicians such as Joseph Diskin – a confidant of Sergey Ryakhovsky from the movement “Renewal” – intend to get the new legislation revised. Both Diskin and Ryachovsky belong to the multipartisan “Public Chamber”. Yet Filinov does not believe these efforts will succeed: “We will need to make do with things as they are.”

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COMMENTARIES

Franklin Graham is not Coming to Moscow

On 4 August, British papers reported that Franklin Graham, head of the renowned „Billy Graham Evangelistic Association“, had moved his world summit on the persecution of Christians to Washington D.C. The event had been planned for Moscow from 28 to 30 October; the new date is 10 to 13 May 2017.

On his Facebook page, Graham attributed the transfer to the anti-evangelistic Yarovaya legislation passed by the Russian government. That is not the entire truth: We had already reported at the end of May that the Moscow summit was either postponed long-term or cancelled on 19 May. Vladimir Putin did not sign off on the Yarovaya legislation until 7 July.

Yuri Sipko, former president of the Russian Baptist Union, attributes the cancellation to the sharp protests from conservative, Orthodox circles following the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Havana on 12 February. In addition, the Moscow Patriarchy failed to attend the historic Pan-Orthodox council on Crete at the end of June. That too was attributed to the resistance of Russia’s most conservative circles. Sipko’s explanation seems plausible – it was therefore not the Russian state which had resisted a world summit on its own turf.

At least a few Russian Protestants and Orthodox can be expected to pay Washington a visit.

Gennady Mokhnenko and the Need for Arms

The heads of leading Ukrainian congregations frequently visit the USA in hopes of locating additional sources of finance. Gennady Mokhnenko, a prominent Pentecostal-Charismatic pastor from the front lines at Mariupol, is no exception. He is a leader in the “Ukraine without Orphans” movement.

While touring Texas, he expressed admiration on his Facebook page on 26 October for the fact that even in church most men are armed. In jest, he had started a survey in a congregation to ascertain how many of its men carried weapons. In response, the pastor pulled a pistol from his pocket (photo included). “A greeting to all pacifists and Tolstoyans from Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin)!” exclaimed Mokhnenko on Facebook. He concluded: “The pastors of Texas with their brains bereft of any form of Soviet communism have no clue as to why we quarrel about the right of Christians to defend themselves.”

The response in the Russian-speaking world was not strictly positive. But one woman from Kiev assured: “I find nothing wrong if a person comes to a church service armed.” The disarming (?) comment of a couple from Texas helped cool the Facebook debate: “For us, this is not a deep theological question - we just like having guns.”

The German political humorist Volker Pispers announced some months ago that the US was suffering 80 homicides a day. “In Iraq, we call that a civil war,” he added. 

In March 2015, Mokhnenko had expressed on Ukrainian TV his willingness to personally kill Vladimir Putin if given a suitable opportunity. (See our release from 2 July 2015.)

Sanitized History in the Baltics

I recently attended a Protestant conference in Estonia. With one exception, the assembled Estonian pastors left the impression of being truly elated about the transfer of the Baltics from the Russian to the Western sphere of influence.

But the article of a Californian professor and author, Sandy Tolan, got me thinking. After seeking out a history museum in St. Petersburg this summer, he did the same thing in Tallinn, visiting its 2003-opened “Museum of Occupations”. He calls this museum a “historical denial”, for it describes the Estonians as nothing less than the constant victims of Russians - and occasionally also of Germans.

He writes: “What struck us most about the shiny museum was its depiction of Estonians’ victimization without any reflection of responsibility. Estonians ‘joined the German army’ but never became Nazis.” Tolan quotes the University of Helsinki’s Oula Silvennoinen: “Collaboration was crucial to the realization of the Holocaust on the local level.” Silvennoinen added that the “genocide of the Estonian Jews was largely perpetrated by Estonian militias and security police.” I read elsewhere German forces claimed that Estonia was “cleansed of Jews” by October 1941, only two months after the start of the German occupation.

Tolan concludes: “What a contrast to Germany, which has confronted its own terrible history head-on.” Well, at least since 1968, I would interject. After the student revolts and the retirement of most Nazi-era culprits, Western Germany did a rather good job of coming to terms with its recent past.

The Tallinn museum says nothing about the fact that Estonians stood on both sides of the barricades during WW II. From 1941 to 1944, Estonians were both starving in blockaded, Soviet-ruled Leningrad while other Estonians fighting with the Wehrmacht were starving them out. Reports state that 30.000 Estonians fought on the Soviet side during the war, another 60-80.000 on the German one.

One prominent example for the thousands of once-broken Estonian families is the Meri clan. Lennart Meri (1929-2006) was a fighter for independence and the president of Estonia from 1992 to 2001. His older cousin, Arnold Meri (1919-2009), was a highly-decorated war veteran and “Hero of the Soviet Union”. At the time of his death, Arnold Meri was on trial for genocide accused of complicity in the deportation of 251 Estonians in March 1949. Yet shortly after the deportations, Arnold had been stripped of all honours and resettled himself to Central Asia. He was rehabilitated, along with thousands of others, in 1956. Some sources say he had been sacked because of his reluctance to be a part of the “deportation movement”.

So at the time of his death seven years ago, Arnold Meri was both defamed in Estonia and celebrated in next-door Russia. Lennart though had apparently been reluctant to criticize his cousin in public. Thanks to Arnold’s high-level intervention, Lennart’s family had been able to return to Estonia much earlier than most and he was able to obtain a doctorate as early as 1953. (See “Berliner Zeitung”, 31 Aug. 2007, also „Wikipedia“.)

The history we read is usually a history as interpreted by victors. And victors file, grind and shape their own “history”. So, sadly, the state-sanctioned, present interpretation of Estonian history ends up no less slanted than the old Soviet one.

Shall we cast stones? If yes, at whom? I do not see Estonian Protestants beating their own breasts. What about the Russian-speaking churches up in the northeastern corner of Estonia around Narva? Perhaps they could help bring balance to this important topic.

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The Shoving Match on Crimea

Russians report that the Protestant congregations in Crimea are under considerable strain. Their former church heads in Kiev insist they retain their long-term institutional ties to the Ukrainian capital. That’s becoming increasingly difficult, for Crimea was proclaimed a part of the Russian Federation in March 2014. This also causes tensions in the congregations between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow factions. The fact that thousands of visa-free vacationers from Greater Ukraine spent time in Crimea during the summer of 2016 surely did not decrease the unrest in Protestant congregations.

I am not aware of cases in which Russian church offices have pressured these congregations to re-orient themselves towards Moscow. But the Muscovites also have not kept them from doing so, which leads to tensions between Moscow and Kiev offices.

Caution, commentary: It’s difficult for me to find something negative in the recognition of clear political realities. And these are realities for which the Protestant congregations in Crimea are neither responsible nor capable of changing.

In 1969, 24 years after the end of the war, a separate and independent evangelical church was finally created in the German Democratic Republic. Until then, West German circles had insisted on a single “Evangelical Church in Germany” in divided Germany. Afterwards, little was apparent which could be described as negative. The move led instead to a significant reduction of tensions on the political and interpersonal level. The issue was soon forgotten after German reunification in 1990. A conclusion: The institutional division of a church did not impair the feeling of unity among Germans.

I do not mean to imply that Crimea will be rejoining Ukraine any time soon. I instead desire to express the view that the recognition of political realities can lead to a noticeable reduction of tensions between states and their citizens.

FURTHER NEWS

Alexander Scheiermann the New Lutheran Bishop in Omsk

During the synod of the “Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and Far East” in Omsk on 14 October, Alexander Scheiermann was consecrated as the church’s new bishop. His official inauguration will take place in Omsk on 23 April 2017.

The election of a new bishop had become necessary after the passing of the South German pietist Otto Schaude in Germany on 27 September. A pensioner, Schaude, who had served as bishop since 2010, had been diagnosed with cancer in 2014. He nevertheless faithfully fulfilled his church duties along with his wife Brigitte until only several days before his death. Bishop Schaude had even expressed the desire that Scheiermann be his successor.

Alexander Scheiermann, born in Omsk region in 1967, has served as superintendent in Saratov/Volga since 1998. Together with his parents, he had emigrated to Germany in 1988. During the years 1990-94 he studied at the St. Chrischona theological school in Switzerland. Only a year later, he returned to Russia as a German citizen along with his wife, Irene. Today, the couple has three children. The new bishop, along with the Saratov work in general, is allied closely with the East European programme of Germany’s “Marburger Mission”.

Motorola Killed

We published the news on 31 January 2015 that perhaps all of the (West) Ukrainian soldiers who had fallen at Donetsk airport carried solar-driven players with spiritual messages from Charles Stanley, a Baptist pastor in Atlanta/Georgia.

The informant was a person without any expertise on church affairs: Arsen (or Arseny) Pavlov, also known as “Motorola”. Pavlov, a Russian citizen, was probably the best-known militia leader on the eastern, Donetsk side. On 16 October, the controversial lieutenant colonel was killed in the elevator of his Donetsk apartment house by a remotely-controlled bomb. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 04 November 2016

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #16-13, 2.573 words.