Soviet Pentecostals' hymn sing warms US Embassy

Many an eye filled with tears as the poignant scene unfolded. The "Siberian seven" -- the seven Russian Christian believers who have lived in the American Embassy in Moscow for almost two years after dashing in past Soviet guards -- stood up during collection at an embassy Easter Sunday service and softly sang a Russian hymn.

They had rehearsed for three days. Few in the congregation of about 150 Americans, Western Europeans, and others knew the hymn. The two men in the group sang one part while the five women rendered another. The hymn was entitled "On Zhiv" -- "He lives."

"It was very moving," said one churchgoer later. "There were many wet eyes." After the service, several American families brought food to an embassy room and sat down to an Easter dinner with the group. The embassy permitted the dinner, though it stipulated that no pictures be taken.

The Easter scene and the no-pictures rule indicated the dilemma the Siberian seven still pose to the embassy and to Soviet officials, as they battle to emigrate to find freedom of worship in the United States or another noncommunist country.

The group, all Pentecostals, consist of members of two families: the Vashchenkos and the Chmykhalovs from the Siberian city of Chernogorsk. They want other family members to be allowed to emigrate with them -- more than 40 individuals in all.

The long saga could soon be over. Some sources think the Soviets will expel the group to prevent them becoming a magnet for foreign visitors attending the Moscow Olympic Games July 19 to Aug. 3. Already the Kremlin has arrested more than 40 dissidents in Moscow, Tallinn, and other cities, presumably for the same reason.

The sources think the Soviets will use the new book, "The Siberian Seven," by British author John Pollack, as an excuse for expulsion. In his prologue Mr. Pollack says the group provided more than a quarter of a million words of their experiences, plus official documents naming Soviet KGB (secret police) and other officials.

The book, released in Britain last year, is to be published in the US later this month by Word, Inc., a Christian publisher in Texas. It is expected to widen US public support for the seven.

Already some 4,000 letters have been written to the families at the embassy and to Soviet officials. But by last December only 53 had been delivered by the Soviets. After a complaint to the International Postal Union Conference in Rio de Janeiro four months ago, about 1,500 have come through.

In a Monitor interview in the embassy courtyard, the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs agreed they might be expelled. But they insisted they would not leave the embassy unless all their children and other close relatives were allowed to emigrate with them.

"We are tired and we are ready to go," said Pyotr Vashchenko, father of 13 children, while his wife and two grown daughters listened. "But if they [the authorities] do anything to hurt Sasha [his son now in a Siberian labor camp for refusing compulsory military service as a religious pacifist], we will stay here forever."

The families felt it would be a victory if they were allowed to emigrate with their relatives. It would also be a victory if they were forced to stay in the embassy, "since we would be a symbol for millions of Christian believers in our country."

So far the Soviets have not wanted "the Siberian seven" to leave the embassy grounds, lest they encourage a flood of other religious dissidents to try the same escape route. The seven say some 30,000 fellow Pentecostals have applied to leave. Not one has been granted permission.

Officially, the US Embassy would like to see the group leave of their own accord, feeling the Soviets would not dare to harm them now that they have become so well known.

Officials also want the case to cease complicating relations with Soviet officials. And they want to avoid any horde of dissidents rushing US embassies in Moscow and Eastern Europe.

Some Western Christians here strongly disagree: "Detente is already at low ebb because of Afghanistan," says one, "so why doesn't the embassy tackle the Soviets head- on over the Pentecostals and create pressure back in the United States to have them allowed to leave with their families?"

Meanwhile, the embassy has loosened restrictions on the group's contacts with the American and other communities in Moscow. But it forbids correspondents to visit the basement room in which the group has lived since August 1978 and bans picture- taking at occasions like the Easter dinner.

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