Promoting Thanksgiving – not Halloween
Responses to an open letter in „Sovietskaya Rossiya“
M o s c o w -- An open letter condemning Moscow’s “Russian-American Christian University” (RACU), appeared in the Communist-supported “Sovietskaya Rossiya” newspaper on 25 October. The letter, signed by playwrights, journalists and professors, asserts that 15.000 signatures have been collected in a bid to thwart the building of a new campus. The open letter even claims that RACU fosters satanic worship by celebrating Halloween. RACU-Provost Dr. David Broersma responds: “This is an old charge. Our detractors keep mixing up Thanksgiving with Halloween. We do celebrate Thanksgiving annually, but we have never commemorated Halloween. I am told though that students at some secular Russian universities have begun to celebrate Halloween.” Taking its cue from the narcotics world, the letter is entitled “On the Baptist Needle”.
RACU (only called an institute or “RACI” in Russian) has needed to move several times since setting up shop in Moscow in 1995. Protests against the university came to a head in early 2006 when ground was broken for a much-needed new campus. Over 10 demonstrations have taken place at the building site next door to an Orthodox cemetery in North Moscow. After a court-ruled construction stop, Broersma reports that construction work is back on track and that completion of the campus is scheduled for Spring 2008.
The open letter expresses amazement that the institution was granted official accreditation, citing a lack of scholarly excellence. Broersma, a US-American and non-Baptist, responds: “The accreditation commission checked us from top to bottom back in 2003. There is no basis to that charge. We believe we will again meet all requirements when that accreditation is up for renewal in 2008.”
Broersma is at a loss to explain the barrage of accusations of proselytisation being levelled at the university. The open letter labels the institution as “Baptist” - yet nearly half of RACU´s professors (and some students) are Orthodox. The Provost admits: “All of our students are required to write a statement professing their Christian faith when they apply. But Orthodox statements of faith are readily accepted. We are not in the business of replacing a person’s Christian faith with another one.”
RACU is one over 70 learning institutions in 24 countries affiliated with the Washington D.C.-based “Council of Christian Colleges and Universities”. The CCCU represents 102 universities and colleges in North America alone – only some of those are Baptist. The idea of a Christian, liberal-arts university in Moscow was born among recognised Russian educators during a visit to Christian colleges and universities in North America in 1990.
This open letter heavily nationalist in flavour faults Washington-based RACU-President Dr. John Bernbaum for stating: “Our primary objective is educating the potential leaders of a new Russia.” Broersma interjects: “That’s the hope of every university in the world. But we don’t say that anymore – that sentence can be misunderstood.” The letter infers that it was precisely such Protestant-trained persons who engineered Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. “But RACU is an educational institution. We are not engaged in any kind of political activities,” the Provost adds.
RACU-Orthodox relations took a turn for the worse in March when Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesperson for the Moscow Patriarchate’s “Department for External Church Relations” headed by Metropolitan Kirill, voiced public criticism. In an article entitled “Baptising Caesar”, John Bernbaum had cited low church attendance as proof for the claim that Russians are no longer an Orthodox people. He added: “Despite all the hopes and self-denying efforts of thousands of Western and Russian evangelists, Russia has not experienced a significant spiritual awakening.” Chaplin retorted: Bernbaum has reduced the development of spiritual life in our country to “the proselytising efforts of Protestant preachers”. Further comments in the text led Chaplin to the conclusion that the RACU-President harbours personal animosity toward Orthodoxy.
Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists` own Department of External Church Relations, comments: “While RACU is not a Baptist organisation, we do wish RACU would cooperate more closely with Baptist and Orthodox institutions in Russia. But this is certainly no reason to deny RACU its right to exist. We want RACU to survive. Without it, Russia would lose a part of the traditional, non-sectarian, confessional diversity which it so desperately needs. We do not want a monolithic or totalitarian Russian future. Respected Orthodox leaders such as Kirill and Chaplin have spoken negatively of RACU. We believe that misunderstandings exist, for these two leaders cannot be described as Russian nationalists. All sides must dialogue earnestly and attempt to clear up misunderstandings.”
A lawyer for Moscow’s Protestant-supported Slavic Legal Centre, Anatoli Pchelintsev, reports that RACU faculty and students have every legal right to demand the publishing of a counterstatement by “Sovietskaya Rossiya”.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 29 November 2007
A press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-50, 772 words.