No Breakthrough – But a Good Start
Baptist delegation visits one of Russia’s most Orthodox regions
M o s c o w -- Ioann, the youthful Archbishop of Belgorod and Stary Oskol, graciously received a Baptist delegation in his residence on 16 November. The city administration also granted the Moscow-headed delegation a meeting. This is remarkable due to the fact that the Belgorod region has in recent years gained a reputation for militant Orthodoxy. As recently as 25 September, Norway’s “Forum 18” news service reported that Belgorod authorities “have no intention of halting compulsory instruction in Orthodox culture to some 140,000 state school pupils. Belgorod is one of the Russian regions that has gone farthest in promoting the Foundations of Orthodox Culture subject, an initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Six years ago, Belgorod City Duma adopted a law prohibiting any public religious gatherings of the non-Orthodox where minors were present. The law also made it virtually impossible for non-Orthodox groups to rent facilities for meetings. In 2002, a Roman Catholic community was denied permission to register. Some rulings were later overturned by higher courts and parliaments.
This region, ravaged by World War II, was long known as part of the “red belt”, a hot-bed of communist persuasion and activity. Much more recently, its border location has raised fears the area could be inundated with missionary activity spilling over from Ukraine, where religious tolerance has made major inroads.
Delegation leader Vitaly Vlasenko, head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists´ Department for External Church Relations in Moscow, reports that local Baptist relations with both the Orthodox church and the city administration have been virtually non-existent for five years. “We ourselves are therefore partly at fault for the poor state of Protestant-Orthodox relations in Belgorod. We must actively seek contacts and become personally acquainted with church and city officials. We must learn to host and be hosted by others.” Vlasenko points out that no interdenominational work - with or without the Orthodox – has been developed there. The crass social needs prevalent within society as well as the Islamist challenge demand much closer co-operation between all Christian denominations.
The Department head adds: “Not much can be done in Belgorod region without the sanction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Archbishop Ioann has great influence. He is a key person and has the respect of government officials. I cannot call our meeting a breakthrough, but it was a productive meeting and we made a good start. We Baptists must work very hard now to develop this relationship.”
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 22 November 2007
A press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-49, 400 words.