Relaymedia

Russian active churches threatened with closure

Row over rental contracts comes after violence against Baptists
( [email protected] ) Mar 17, 2004 02:44 PM EST

Moscow / Budapest (ANS) -- Two church congregations on Russia's Pacific coast are set to lose their worship buildings as part of what human rights workers see as an often violent campaign to remove active Christian communities from Russian society, ASSIST News Service (ANS) monitored Tuesday March 16.


The Grace Pentecostal Church and the Orthodox parish of the Annunciation are likely to lose their places of worship as the local city council abruptly cancelled a contract it had given for the use of a state-owned building, said the Forum 18 News Service (F18News) of the Oslo-based religious right group Forum 18.


Authorities cancelled the agreements after elsewhere in Russia pastors of one of the country's largest unregistered Baptist churches claimed their prayer house was "deliberately attacked" January 13, when two powerful explosions ripped through their building's interior in Tula, about 120 kilometers (75 miles), south of Moscow. Pastors Viktor Orlov and Aleksandr Lakhtikov told F18News they do not know who caused the explosions in which they said "two church members received serious burns."


The timing of the violence - just before a major conference at the church to be attended by Baptist leaders from all over Russia - was thought to be "particularly suspicious" after two Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox churches suffered arson attacks in the same area. Church officials said "the same chain" was responsible for all violence, although it was unclear if corrupt officials or police were involved.


PENTECOSTALS THREATENED


While the 100-strong Pentecostal congregation in the port of Sovetskaya Gavan was apparently not attacked violently, it has been told by the municipality to leave unless it pays the a much higher, "commercial" rent, reported F18News. The Moscow Patriarchate's parish of the Annunciation in a neighboring village has received a similar threat, said F18News citing several church officials.


Other growing churches, including in Russia's capital Moscow, have also been struggling with local authorities to keep their buildings.


The Moscow-based lawyer and religious specialist Anatoli Pchelintsev told F18News that churches throughout the country are facing threats of closure and other measures intended "to damage specifically religious organizations," especially in the Far East.


CORRUPTION CONCERN


In most cases "the religious organization concerned is offered rent at approximately 1,000 times that of a commercial firm", he said.


These kind of developments have been linked to both corruption as well as concern among former Communist authorities and traditional church leaders to lose their influence over rapidly growing Christian groups in the former Soviet Union, ASSIST News Service (ANS) observed.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won controversial elections Sunday, March 14, pledged to crack down on corrupt local bureaucrats, but it was not clear how these measures would effect churches and congregations trying to survive.