27.09.2016

The Continuing Journey in Opposing Directions

On the present climate among Russia’s Protestants

S m o l e n s k – The worries are self-evident since the „Yarovaya-Laws“ or the „Yarovaya Package“ were passed on 7 July. A seminar held by the US-supported “Slavic Legal Centre” on 18 July in the Russian capital was attended by 3.500 mostly Protestant listeners. ”The believers are very worried about monetary fines”, reported Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Relations for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, on 20 September. “Our congregations are frequently very poor and even a fine of 1.000 roubles (14 euros) can cause major excitement. Many of our congregations still meet in unregistered church buildings officially belonging to private persons. But now it appears as if outside guests and foreigners will barely have access to such quarters. Much regarding the practical implementation of the new laws is still unclear, and in more rural regions our police do not always act in a professional manner. In one recent case, people were kept from praying in their own place of worship.” In Samara/Volga Protestants were very unsure whether they would even be permitted to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Russian Synodal Bible. Yet precisely this project has received significant state funding!

The British news service „Forum 18“ reported that during their first full month in force (August), the Yarovaya-Laws had led to the conviction of six persons. Not only lonely wolves and Hari-Krishna were affected; long-established Baptist, Adventist and Pentecostals congregations have also been under scrutiny.

Moscow Pentecostal Sergey Filinov, Pastor of the „Mission of Living Faith“ and head of the umbrella „Council of Christian-Evangelical Churches“, notes that the banning of missionary activity could be interpreted as an infringement of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to religious freedom. According to present interpretations, the new laws permit religious gatherings in private quarters if the house group and all its members are part of a registered religious organisation. But in whose name is a person speaking when he proclaims his faith, the pastor asks: “He may speak in the name of his church, but not in his own name.” The pastor regards this as a splitting of hairs.

It could soon be the case that foreigners on tourist or humanitarian visas will no longer be allowed to speak at religious gatherings. This would probably also affect Ukrainian citizens, though they are permitted to enter Russia without a visa. One hears that a written contract between a guest speaker and the inviting organisation will be required. 

This is clearly an attempt by the government to bring order to the far-flung and complex network of religious organisations developed since 1990. All should be required to clarify their identity and background, all should be categorised. One could maintain that these measures are nothing less than an attempt to put into practice the legislation already passed in 1997. This will place significant pressure on decentrally-organised confessions such as the Korean Presbyterians. There is essentially no Presbyterian leader in Russia with a complete overview of his denomination’s national presence. That is not particularly surprising, for South Korea possesses roughly 112 independent and autonomous Presbyterian denominations. The “Soviet Tserkvei”, the “International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” formed in 1961, does not want to be a registered organisation and never has on principle possessed officially-registered places of worship. It is prepared to once again accept the chips as they fall. 

Positive aspects
Vitaly Vlasenko spent 19 September in Samara in hopes of calming the waves. He stressed there that nothing is impeding the holding of events commemorating the Bible translation. He also visited the Orthodox Metropolitan Sergiy (Poletkin), who promised to send a delegate to the anniversary celebrations. According to Vlasenko, the Metropolitan also gave the new “I Read the Bible”-project his unmitigated support. This project promoting the reading of the Bible also enjoys strong government funding; both projects have been run through the External Relations department (Vlasenko) of the Baptist Union. The state will also be strongly funding a project for the Reformation year of 2017 organized by Archbishop Dietrich Brauer and his “Evangelical-Lutheran Church”. (The financial numbers have not been made public.) It appears once again as if the Russian state will be moving simultaneously in opposite directions. Restrictive measures are combined with financial support for Protestant and multi-confessional projects.

Vlasenko consequently claims that the new legislation is not directed against Protestants: “Our government of course is not opposed to the Christian faith.” This church diplomat intends to interact constructively with the state and Orthodoxy. “Sometimes organisations are too critical,” he concludes. “We desire constructive dialogue – the state and Orthodoxy are our allies. We desire to stress that we are Russians, that we feel ourselves at one with our land. The Bible teaches us that we should obey and honour our authorities. That gets complicated only when they contradict the Bible.” He believes organisations such as the “Slavic Legal Centre” ignore the underlying dynamics expressed through the Yarovaya legislation.

My commentary: It is clear that states such as Russia, China, India and the Muslim countries of Central Asia intend to prevent the haphazard proliferation of religious organizations common in the countries of Latin America and Africa. In the latter, even the tiniest Western churches and sects are permitted to open new branches. Several years ago, I chanced upon Baptist employees of the Indian embassy at Moscow’s “Central Baptist Church“. I mentioned to them that foreigners preaching or baptising in India on tourist visas can reckon with an entry ban of five years. These Indian diplomats had no problem with that practice. These nations intend to retain their cultural identity – one thinks defensively in Eastern Europe and many parts of Asia. 

The future
Pastor Vlasenko concedes that the Yarovaya-Laws passed through the Duma as a small-print rider hidden behind more prominent legislation. Not even the Duma’s commission for religious affairs had been consulted; nevertheless, President Putin had seen it fit to sign the legislation.

Since the elections on 18 September, the Duma is being reconstituted. Church leaders such as Sergey Filinov hope a person such as Yaroslav Nilov, chairman of the Duma’s commission on religious affairs, will start an initiative to improve and better define the legislation. Highly regarded by Protestants, the 1982-born Nilov is a delegate of rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s “Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia” (LDPR). Putin has already mentioned the possibility of future changes.

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Additional topics: On a bus Smolensk-Minsk und in Kiev

On a bus ride of German peace activists from Smolensk to Minsk on 17 August I attempted to clarify the longings of Ukrainian Protestants. Without wanting to applaud their fundamental political positions, I tried to explain that very many Ukrainians simply hope to achieve a higher standard of living – which Russians also desire. They want a better life and a more democratic, transparent state. And if the West comes to them, they will no longer need to emigrate to it – which is of course much more convenient.

But I was quickly cut short: „Those guys in Kiev are a pack of criminals”, the German-Russian bus driver insisted. (He lives in Germany and has passes from both states.) “We are one people, we are all sisters and brothers. We are all Russians. White Russian and Ukrainian are nothing more than Russian dialects.” Except for Belarus, the European Union and USA have destroyed the economies in the lands of the former Soviet Union. It’s the USA that has – divide and conquer – incited us to hate each other. “But the time will come, once the USA and its lackeys have passed off the scene, that we will again come together.” 

Soon after that, our German charter bus drove through the east of Minsk heading in a south-westerly direction on “Independence Prospect”. The buildings and parks were incredibly attractive; the German guests and I were aghast and amazed.

Things sounded differently during a conversation between a joint delegation from the „European Baptist Federation“ and the „Baptist World Alliance“ and the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on 25 August. According to the EBF, Poroshenko suggested that “Protestant religious organizations could become an important component of both spiritual and social support not only for our military on the front, but also providing care for the wounded and families of the victims”. 

In his response, Paul Msiza, the South African president of the World Alliance, assured that “we are here today to show solidarity with the Ukrainians”. During their Kiev stay, the top-level Baptist delegation had visited a military parade, etc. 

An addendum to the conversation on the bus: The detachment of “Western Ukrainians” – or Galicians – from the remainder of East European “Slavonia” is no invention of the US-Americans. It reaches back to the medieval period and became highly-apparent with the founding of the Greek-Catholic church in 1593. Today, as in the past, foreign powers use this old divide as an instrument for their own purposes. But can one even speak of a clearly-definable “Ukraine” prior to 1920? Is it not historically more correct to speak of “Poland”, “Galicia”, “Minor”, “Great” and “White Russia”? Where no clearly definable and discernible nation is present, it also cannot be divided.

My intimation on the bus that East Europeans will decide to remain at home as soon as their countries have become the West is inaccurate. The Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, is said to have described his country’s two-fold problem as follows: the westward emigration of its youth is complemented by a massive arrival of Ukrainians. In 2016, Poles replaced Indians as the largest foreign-born minority within the United Kingdom: more than 800.000.

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Yuri Sipko once again

In his Facebook article of 6 September, composed during his most recent visit to Ukraine, Yuri Sipko called on the „separatists“ ruling in Donbass to unilaterally lay down their arms. (Sipko, who resides in Moscow, was president of Russia's Baptist Union 2002-2010.) All – he apparently meant foreign – troops are to be withdrawn, road blocks removed and the border controls placed in the hands of international authorities. He also described the separatists as „hooligans“ and assured that they had „attacked“ Donbass. One quote: „I was able once again to reassure myself tha attempts to force Ukraine into a Russian world (Russkii Mir“) are not only a mistake, but also a crime.“

On Facebook, there were more than 200 responses to his commentary, the majority of them from Ukraine and highly positive; Sipko was praised as a peacemaker. The well-wishers included Serhii Moroz from Baptist headquarters in Kiev as well as two of Protestantism's most emphatic supporters of the (West)Ukrainian cause: the Baptist Mikhail Cherenkov (spellings vary) and the Pentecostal Gennady Mokhnenko. Most of the detractors were residents of Russia: Vadim Drozdov from Kemerovo/Siberia claimed for ex., that the former Baptist president splits the Baptist movement: „Very few brethren in Russia share his opinion on Ukraine.“ 

My commentary: An attempted peace statement like the Minsk II accords of February 2015 struggles to address and take seriously the interests of both sides, which is precisely what Yuri Sipko does not do. Only the interests of one of the warring parties are legitimate. By Sipko and other adherents of the (West)Ukrainian cause, the geo-strategic concerns of Russia are ignored.

Many assessments remain one-dimensional and narrow. One participant of this Facebook discussion claimed the Yarovaya legislation would prove that God stands on the side of Kiev. Such criteria whitewash those dictatorships who proved lenient on the matter of evangelism – the Nazis, for ex.

It's positive that as part of this Facebook discussion, detractors are called upon to pay the churches of Ukraine a visit. But Vadim Drozdov responded: „Christians in Ukraine have informed me that I would not be returning home again if I dared pay them a visit.“ I unfortunately need to take that response seriously, for their are also other cases in which persons „doubting Kiev's cause“ have been threatened with physical violence or arrest if they visit. But there is on the other hand an active and friendly exchange between Baptists in Donbass and the neighbouring regions of Russia.

During July and August, a Ukrainian music group toured Germany for the first time. When we met, several group members gave me a big hug. That felt good! The group's leader, an old acquaintance, told me: „Politics are a dirty business. We retain as much distance as possible from it.“ One contributes to the cause of peace by detouring around the topic – which might be the best we can do. The understanding of the Gospel we profess is evidently too weak to confront hatred. We are not better equipped than secular persons to tackle the matter at hand.

But as long as Russians are also involved in the Protestant discussion on Ukraine, I do not desire to chuck the hope that this confusion might still result in greater appreciation for the complexity of political issues. Drozdov, a retired lay preacher with considerable knowledge on political topics who spent time in the Gulag, responds somewhat emotionally. Technical lecturer Mikhail Nevolin of St. Petersburg is highly cautious and concerned about accuracy. He criticised Sipko in the Facebook discussion for limited knowledge of the facts and generalizations such as “nowhere in the world” or “no one in the world”.

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Yoder: The musings of a rookie retiree 

Does it make sense to keep listing the sins of the “other side”? Ukrainians insist I should skip the negative remarks; I do not have the right to comment on that which transpires there. Should I therefore make a unilateral step forward and decide to only mention the positive? 

The Ukrainian side lists the negative again and again – so do I. Is it our goal that at some point the party with the longer register of sins is declared winner? But there is no way to determine the greater relative virtue of competing global systems. We lack objective criteria. It needs to suffice that we are a blessing and work for the common good there where we live.

Bad news is good news
How far would the West’s arms build-up have gotten during the Cold War without reports on the persecution of Christians in communist-run states? That’s how the bad is turned into “good”. For those wanting to attack the Russian Federation, the Yarovaya legislation is a highly-welcome development. These laws help feed the propaganda mills.

But the friends of Russia and all other alternative systems do not do otherwise. That’s general human practice: One uses the sins of the other side to further one’s own cause. And one increases the “positive” effect of this practice by exaggerating the sins of the other side.

Perhaps we could agree on the following: Our criticism does not intend to destroy, it is instead a query. Serious, thought-through responses to queries are always possible and welcome. That’s how we could make progress. 

I often have the impression, much would remain uncovered in the Protestant, Russian-speaking world if there were not at least a few observers willing to describe affairs in English. The churches of the West need larger sources of information. Information must be the foundation of our decisions; we’re otherwise groping in the dark. Both Russian and Ukrainian shortcomings need to be covered. But it is in all cases important that a fair and honourable style be preserved.

Exceptionalism
I suppose the nearly indestructible conviction of our own superior virtue impedes the work of the Holy Spirit in a major way. In this context, the USA is repeatedly criticised for the belief in its own “exceptionalism”. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the USA has become guilty of millions of war dead. Despite losses in its Afghanistan war broken off in 1989, the USSR was responsible for many fewer war dead during this time period.

The terrible suffering of Christians – and many Marxists - in Stalin’s USSR was unfortunately no highly-unusual, one-time occurrence. The native peoples for ex. of North and South America were subjected to a genocide carried about by white, European Christians. We must not forget the millions of dead caused by wars and sanctions in the Near and Far East (Iraq and Vietnam for ex.). 

Most states of the West of course enjoy a high standard of living without bitter poverty. Capitalism doesn’t sleep: Slavery and starvation wages have been exported to the sweat shops of Asia and Africa. That raises the question regarding the extent to which Western wealth has been achieved through exploitation of the South.

The selective moral indignation we Western Christians practice guarantees us charges of hypocrisy and makes us the recipients of sneering rejection. Our credibility has been destroyed to an extent that not even multitudes of missionaries could correct. And precisely this Western tradition is the one the peoples of Central Europe are joining. One can only once again appeal to Romans 3:23: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

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An addendum
In my last article from 15 July, I wrote of Western missions “overdramatising needs and woes” for their own purposes. As an example I cited the “Open Doors” mission. A leading person within Germany’s Evangelical Alliance took issue with this example. I therefore want to point to the original, German-language statement made by the Alliance – see its release from 21 June 2016: “http://www.ead.de/nachrichten/nachrichten/einzelansicht/article/deutschland-leben-christliche-fluechtlinge-in-einem-klima-der-angst.html”.

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William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 27 September 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 #16-11.