Foreign Preachers Find Shrinking Pulpit in Russia

More than a thousand years ago, two monks from Macedonia brought Christianity to the Slavs - along with the alphabet that helped create the culture of Pushkin and Tolstoy.

Today, foreign missionaries in Russia are not exactly being canonized, as Saints Cyril and Methodius were. Russian Orthodox Church leaders and many politicians see them as a threat to Russian culture and are campaigning to limit their activity.

The issue took on a new edge as a parliamentary task force hammered out a bill on religion. The bill, approved by the committee on religious organizations last week in the Duma (lower house of parliament), calls only for registration of foreign missionaries; it is unlikely to affect their operations significantly. Yet many observers worry that politicians will side with the Orthodox church and contain the spread of non-Orthodox denominations in Russia.

For their part, government officials say they have the right to control and monitor missionary activity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have seen their country flooded with representatives of groups from the Japanese group Aum Shinri Kyo - responsible for the 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system - to the more established Church of God.

"I'm inclined to compare [the influx of groups] to the discovery of gold in the Klondike," says religious studies expert Lev Mitrokhin. "Everyone came to Russia to look for gold - both spiritual and material."

The Moscow Patriarchate has been lobbying for limits on missionary activity since 1993, according to Vyacheslav Polosin, a staff member for the Duma committee. That year, a bill was drafted but never adopted, which "at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church" banned foreign missionaries who were not working through a Russian organization. While such a measure would still be preferred by the Patriarchate, Mr. Polosin says it would be unconstitutional.

The current bill, which is expected to be approved by parliament, calls for the registration of foreign missionary groups. Though there is no outright ban, registration could exclude certain groups.

And in President Boris Yeltsin's reelection platform, released on Friday, he pledges to "set up a mechanism of protection from totalitarian cults."

More worrisome to religious-freedom advocates than these federal policies are actions being taken by local governments. According to Polosin, 18 regions have adopted unconstitutional laws, which include direct bans on missionaries and fees for registration. In the Tula region south of Moscow, a law being protested by the prosecutor general requires that a child under 18 have permission from both parents before attending missionary gatherings.

A fight for the flock

According to Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow correspondent for Keston News Service, which monitors religious freedom, non-Orthodox groups are having difficulty buying land and renting building space from local governments. "Some are even having trouble getting back [churches] they legally owned before 1917," when the Bolsheviks took power.

If non-Orthodox congregations claim they are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs, Church leaders feel a similar sense of entitlement. They accuse Protestant denominations of proselytizing - that is, stealing their flock. "The foreign missionaries saw Russia as an untilled field for their work," says Yelena Speranskaya, a senior expert with the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations. "They did not know that Russia is indeed a Christian country, and they came as if to a pagan country."

Missionary activity in Russia peaked around 1993, and the trend of religious revival has already begun to wane. At first, says Mr. Mitrokhin, Western religious groups were very successful in Russia because they symbolized the United States, an ideal popular in the first few post-Soviet years but now out of favor. They also grew popular by distributing humanitarian aid, but "now they have exhausted their resources," says Ms. Speranskaya.

The Russian Orthodox Church sees itself in the role of defending Russian culture from the onslaught of American ideas and customs. "We've always been convinced that ... the restoration of Russian religion has to be done in a national - though not nationalistic - spirit," she adds.

In contrast to the somber chants that echo inside Moscow's Orthodox churches, the rock 'n' roll and country-music style hymns that emanate from the Sunday Pentecostal service at the Dorkhim Zavod House of Culture appear completely imported. But the service is led by Russians, and the congregation has existed since 1955.

"The law says all religions are equal in Russia," says Alexander Baidak, director of the Association of Christian Missions, an organization that coordinates Pentecostal missionary activity in Russia. "But other people want something different. They say, 'Our Russia is Orthodox, so the state should be Orthodox.' "

Siding with the state

During the current presidential campaign, the nationalist-Orthodox drum has been beaten across the ideological spectrum. "All the political leaders - who are not believers themselves - are constantly posing for photo-ops with the Patriarch," says Mr. Uzzell.

A practicing Orthodox, Uzzell also faults Church leaders for courting political power. Church leaders "seek to cement relations with the state.... Rarely do they play the prophetic role of denouncing the moral excesses of the state. Given the objective factors of what has happened in Chechnya, it is striking how relatively mute the Moscow Patriarchate has been on that subject."

One American missionary, who requested anonymity because of the antimissionary climate, distances himself from politics. "I'm not over here to perpetuate or participate in a power struggle any more than Jesus was trying to overthrow the Roman empire."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Foreign Preachers Find Shrinking Pulpit in Russia
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today