New Restrictions Threaten Protestant Churches in Khabarovsk, Russia

( [email protected] ) Jun 12, 2004 10:58 AM EDT

Reported by pastors of various Protestant churches in the Far Eastern Russian region of Khabarovsk, a local law restricting missionary activity has been introduced.

The law was launched without any notification to religious groups. Under the law, church activities are only permitted when the church is registered and such registration is only valid within the territory where it is registered. In this way, it hinders the expansion of churches into new areas because the church will have to go through all the registration processes each time they pioneer a new church in another area.

“Officials refer to the law but they don't show it to you,” Pastor Aleksandr Pankratov of Khabarovsk’s Revival Pentecostal church said, “the officials insist on the term ‘local’ featured in the title of a church when applying for registration. Otherwise they won't register you – it means that [the church's] activities are permitted only within the territorial limits of the place where it is registered.”

Regional Officer for Religious Affairs in Khabarovsk, Mikhail Svishchev, confirmed that there had been a regional law on missionary activity, he explained, “if a religious organization is registered in a particular town, it can’t operate elsewhere.”

Svishchev also mentioned that for religious organizations that wished to hold an open-air meeting, they are legally obliged only to inform the local authorities.

Pastor Aleksandr Pankratov of Revival Pentecostal church said on one occasion they tried to rent an officers’ club of an Orthodox group for a religious event, however, the rent they paid was returned. The officer of the Orthodox group explained to him, “it isn’t our faith.”

In terms of evangelizing, protestant church members are allowed to visit hospitals built by the Orthodox group, but they are restricted in praying for and preaching to the patients. Orthodox Priest Father Nikanor (Lepeshev) openly said, “So yes, we do have privileges here – but we are the state-forming religion and most people here are Orthodox.”

Even though the Constitution of Russian Government claims to provide freedom of religion and the Government generally respect this right in practice, however, in some cases the authorities have imposed restrictions on some particular groups.

Many religious minority groups and NGOs complained of what they believed was collusion between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. Public statements by some government officials, including President Putin, and anecdotal evidence from religious minority groups, suggested that the Russian Orthodox Church increasingly enjoyed a status that approached official. It is suspected that the Orthodox Church has entered into a number of agreements with government ministries giving it special access to institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons.

In conclusion, although the Constitution provides for the equality of all religions before the law and the separation of church and state, the Government did not always respect this provision in practice.

Recently, an unofficial “red line” was adopted to circle the center of the Far East Russian city so that non-Orthodox groups were unable to secure worship premises.

As a result, the Revival Pentecostal Church can only rent a hall in a state institution on the outskirts (approximately 20 minutes' drive from the city center) of the Khabarovsk for its three weekly meetings. Pastor Aleksandr Pankratov of the church commented that the local authorities "don't let us anywhere near the city center".

Khabarovsh Third Baptist Church first requested a plot of land approximately four years ago; it was refused twice. Pastor Gennadi Degtyarov said that his congregation had found it impossible to get permission to build in the city center, “Then we were told we could only be allocated one on the outskirts of the city.”

Regional Officer for Religious Affairs in Khabarovsk, Mikhail Svishchev admitted this fact. However, he argued that this is because of the drive all cities have been taking in preserving their historical appearance.