Religious freedom in Eastern Russia varies widely, even from village to village, with restrictions being most common on public events with an evangelical purpose, Protestant leaders recently told a Norway-based news agency. According to a report released by Forum 18, some local officials are very supportive of evangelical events, and also of social care projects such as anti-drug initiatives, while others are hostile to any event run by Protestants.
According to Baptist and Pentecostal leaders in Tyumen and Syerdlovsk regioins, the degree of religious freedom fluctuates wildly throughout the Urals area--the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia and separating the Russian plain from the Western Siberian lowlands.
"It's like playing a game of football with only one set of goalposts," the Pentecostal pastor of Tyumen Christian Church, Leonid Brodovsky, told Forum 18. While, for example, there was no obstruction to a group of Ukrainian and US citizens taking part in the church's recent annual rural mission, he said, the Pentecostals were refused permission to rent venues for the project in half the villages they visited.
Legally, Brodovsky explained, a religious or other social organization need only notify the relevant state authority about a upcoming public event of this kind, but in practice permission is required - and lower level officials often demand to see approval from higher instances before granting it. Tyumen Christian Church--an affiliate of a Russia-wide Pentecostal union--usually agrees its plans for public evangelism events beforehand with Sverdlovsk's regional religious affairs official, said Brodovsky. But on this occasion, he continued, the official declined to sign the proposals, saying that the church should obtain permission from each individual local authority.
"And when we try to go ahead without his signature, village officials say that this is a violation, that we need approval from above," Brodovsky said. In the city of Tobolsk (125 miles north-east of Tyumen), Pastor Aleksandr Lepyokhin told Forum 18 that local officials do not block members of his "Word of Life" Baptist Church from preaching in villages. "But we don't go en masse; evangelization normally happens on an individual basis," he remarked.
In the Fall of 2003, however, as part of the "There Is Hope" Russia-wide evangelism project, the church planned widespread public showings of "Ascent," a film exploring the different attitudes of two mountaineers, one believer and one non-believer, said Lepyokhin.
Even though the Baptists supplied an Education Ministry letter approving for screening the film in its institutions, he added, local department officials refused them access. "They just said they didn't want anything to do with us," added Lepyokhin.
The Baptists were able to show the film, but only in a few venues ?Etheir own church building, a cinema and an art institute with whom they already had good relations.
In the town of Asbest (20 miles north-east of Yekaterinburg), Pastor Andrei Berdishchev of "Love of Christ" Pentecostal Church, whose 30 registered communities throughout Sverdlovsk region are affiliated to a Russia-wide Pentecostal, reported that "Love of Christ" also sometimes faces obstruction to its evangelism initiatives, such as when police recently halted an open-air village event for which the church had given the local authorities prior notification.
"They claimed that permission was required," Berdishchev told Forum 18.
Due to the personal antipathy of individual officials, said Berdishchev, the authorities in some towns do not permit the church to rent state premises for outreach projects, "even anti-drug initiatives." He added that the opposite could also be the case.
"The head of one local village council addressed our tent evangelization meeting and invited us to come and lead Bible study classes," said Berdishchev.
Berdishchev estimated, however, that the attitude of local officials to the church was negative in over 50 percent of cases.
Pavel and Marina Gailans of "Greater Grace" Evangelical Church in Tyumen city told Forum 18 that they regularly conduct street evangelism without obstacles. "If police officers approach us we explain that we are a registered religious organization acting in accordance with the aims of our charter," they remarked.
The Gailans added that back in 1995, the church's US founder Michael Walsh was constantly refused permission for street evangelism in Tyumen, "so he just stopped asking and there were no further problems." In their view, obstacles appear only if churches try to stage large-scale events attracting a lot of attention. Since they were able to rent a cultural center for a one-off evangelism initiative in May 2004, the Gailans also suggested that it was easier to hold such events inside a building.
Pastor Berdishchev in Asbest, explained that state officials' refusals to permit church events are always verbal and in the form of practical excuses. "The building we want to rent is under repair, for example, or we are told to see an official who is on holiday," said Berdishcev.
In Tyumen, Pastor Brodovsky testified to a similar response. "We are never refused as a 'sect', but are told that a building is already being used at the time we want it, say," stated Brodovsky.
Even though "the law is on our side" according to Berdishchev, it is impossible to challenge rejections legally, although in any case would prove likely to hamper future relations with the state authorities. Citing the recent disruption by an alleged terrorist threat of a Protestant stadium event in Tyumen, Berdishchev also suggested that it was easy to thwart a church's insistence on exercising its lawful rights. He maintained that lower level officials were generally reluctant to take decisions in accordance with the law.
"A mayor only does so if the governor approves, and so on downwards. If you cite the law he says that it was drawn up far away in Moscow, and that he will be left with the consequences [if he implements it]."
Tatyana Tagiyeva, who was once a Sverdlovsk regional religious affairs officer, said "Even if they could really do with a social project, they know that an Orthodox priest will kick up a fuss, and no fool would risk his career by being linked with support for a Protestant church."
Tagiyeva confirmed that state representatives would refuse Protestants permission to hold events for any reason other than that they are a 'totalitarian sect.'