Active in No-Man’s Land
M o s c o w – The Baptist Oleg Askalenok (Moscow), President of the „Christian Soldiers’ Union of Russia“, reported on 12 July that an article in „Red Star“, the periodical of the Russian Ministry of Defense, has caused signficant damage. Entitled “Mission not Accomplished?” the article reported in drastic terms about the Soldiers’ Union and the retired officers from the West who have been its guests. Askalenok complains that he himself is - according to the demands of the moment - branded either a US-American, German, South Korean or Canadian agent. He reports: “Practially all doors were slammed shut following this article. All that often remains for us to do is to pray or to hand out our magazine to soldiers waiting at railway stations.”
But Askalenok, himself a former officer, attests to his continuing willingness to cooperate with government officials. “We are ready to visit military units and do what we can to help overcome evils like alcoholism and hazing. We are willing to work with the most difficult cases.” In an earlier talk with the Christian broadcaster “Radio Teos” he assured: “We have the experience. Our Soldiers’ Union has worked with such cases before and we can point to positive results.”
Yet an officer usually responds to offers of help with: „Have you gotten the blessings of an Orthodox priest? Do you have an official contract with the Ministry of Defense?” Only the Russian Orthodox Church has succeeded in obtaining such agreements – all other confessions find themselves in a legal no-man’s land when they become active in the military realm. Muslim and Jewish clergy were invited to a conference of military chaplains in Novogord in late June. But Askelenok adds that only the Orthodox are permitted to bless units of soldiers, flags and military hardware. In view of the state`s supposed neutrality in religious matters he asks: “How should Muslims and Protestants handle Orthodox military hardware? In such instances we simply think of the army as an Orthodox entity.”
Due to the lack of written agreements, Christian Soldiers’ Union workers are completely dependent on the good graces of any officer in authority when hoping for cooperation. Except for casual acquaintances with officers resulting from a train trip for ex., Askelenok must repeatedly fall back on contacts stemming from his own time as an officer when he entertains hopes of getting past a barracks gate.
Though the mission has only three salaried workers in its Moscow offices, it can count on the cooperation of up to 500 helpers even in very remote Baptist congregations. These helpers visit barracks in their vicinity and attempt to befriend and aid the enlisted.
But it is not only the Orthodox who oppose these efforts – ministry among soldiers also has its detractors within Baptist circles. Jakov Zhidkov, a leading representative of the Soviet-era All-Union Council of Baptists, lost two sons as soliders as early as World War II. Yet the pacifist convictions within a segment of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) remain.
Yuri Sipko (Moscow), President of the RUECB, responded to the questions of an army officer on the church`s website on 13 July. Citing the priesthood of all believers as justification, the President described military service and the swearing of oaths as issues best left to the conscience of the individual believer. He added: “We have church members who could not imagine pointing a weapon at another human being. We respect that conviction. And so does our government, for it has passed a law providing alternative service. But we also have soldiers and officers in our congregations who have committed their lives to the defense of the Fatherland. Unfortunately, the army is closed to workers acting in the name of our Union. I am confident that opportunities will still open up for our workers to help young Christian soldiers make right decisions at critical times in their lives.”
Despite its setbacks, later this year the Christian Soldiers’ Union of Russia will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of its official, government registration.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 18 July 2007
A press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-23. 665 words.