Cooperation is the Order of the Day
Baptist World Alliance General-Secretary Neville Callam visits Russia
M o s c o w -- An exuberant reception by three government offices marked the first visit to Russia from 16 to 18 June of the Baptist World Alliance’s new General-Secretary, the Jamaican Neville Callam (Falls Church near Washington). Sergey Popov, the member of the Duma (Russia’s Lower House) responsible for its “Committee for Relations with Public and Religious Organisations” announced for ex. the end of any need for believers “to struggle against government power. Cooperation is the order of the day. We no longer want to prohibit your activities – we want to encourage them.” A meeting with Alexander Torshin, Vice-Chairman of the Council of the Russian Federation (Upper House), ended with Pastor Callam holding a prayer mentioning “our brother Alexander”. Alexander Kudryavtsev, who represents the “Administration of the President of the Russian Federation” and can be described as Dmitry Medvedev’s emissary, went to the trouble of paying Baptist headquarters in Moscow a visit. He described Baptists in his 20 years of relating to them as “always willing to help and to answer all questions” and recommended a new “social partnership” in the struggle against substance abuse.
All sides praised the thrift, work ethic and strong, large families of Russian Baptists. All three government representatives proposed joint projects. Besides the fight against drugs and alcohol, these included gatherings of businessmen and small-business creation, social projects to aid the disadvantaged and the teaching of family and moral values. Without prompting from guests, government assistance was promised for an expansion of the existing National Prayer Breakfast. Sergey Popov, who heads an Orthodox movement among Christian parliamentarians in Russia, urged a strengthening of Prayer Breakfast contacts with politicians in other countries.
Alexander Torshin, who perhaps went farthest in welcoming the Baptist delegation, invited Callam to return for an extended visit of other cities with assistance from the Russian government. He assured that relations should extend beyond protocol and transition immediately to concrete projects: “We need good preachers of the Christian faith. We essentially do not have economic problems – we only have psychological ones.” He called upon the churches to help the peoples of Russia exploit their full potential. “We want a large number of Baptist congregations throughout the country,” he exclaimed. “We must support religious organisations, for otherwise our efforts cannot succeed. Nothing will be accomplished without hard work – and Baptists know how to work.” He promised to speak with the President of Ingushetia (near Chechnya) regarding the prospects of bringing back Christians who had fled from the war-torn region. He assured the government there now understands “that a mono-confessional country can be a very dangerous thing”. Torshin even suggested that Protestants get involved in the highly-unpopular field of Russian agriculture. Half in jest he suggested that Protestants create counterparts to an existing Orthodox collective farm: “We have the land and water, and thanks to global warming, we are even becoming a warm country! But we simply do not have enough hands. Can you make us any offers? We will surely support them.”
A grateful BWA-General-Secretary responded to Torshin that “we do not claim to be the sole Christians anywhere. Our desire is to partner with others. We are not here simply to satisfy our own needs – we also are here to build community. Because of restrictions, the Baptists of Russia have not been involved in community development for a long time. It has taken some time for them to develop their courage and self-confidence, for them to believe that the doors are truly open.”
Yuri Sipko, President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB), thanked Sergey Popov for the confessional stability which the 11-year-old, frequently controversial „Law on the Freedom of Conscience“ has helped create. “Religious freedom is a primary requisite for economic development. Only it can free up persons to become creative.” Sipko added in a separate conversation that he holds “in very high regards the high notes awarded the RUECB by Kudryavtsev, Torshin, Popov and Alexius II.”
The reception of the delegation by Alexius II, the Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia in the Danilov Monastery on 18 June was sober and cautious in nature, yet also decidedly friendly. The Patriarch outlined the parameters for a joint front with Baptists against secularism, implying that any sanctioning of homosexual lifestyles would breach that relationship. He noted that this has already occurred in Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) relations with Swedish Lutherans and the Episcopal church of North America. He mentioned in the same context Bible translations written in an inclusive language and the leadership role of women. The Patriarch appealed for a continuation of the Orthodox-Baptist consultations on moral values which had last convened in February 2007.
Callam responded by expressing his hopes for friendly relations with the ROC and a joint denouncing of the “monster of secularism”. He added: “We realize that we Baptists are not the founders of Christianity in Russia. We must therefore respect and build strong relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. We need to accept each other as brothers and sisters.” Yuri Sipko appealed for cooperation and lauded the Patriarch for his forceful stand on homosexuality during his visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 2 October.
There exists a discrepancy between the assurances of Russian state and church officials and religious freedom as experienced in the wide expanses of Russia. President Sipko reported recently that a ruling making a Baptist congregation in the Black Sea resort of Tuapse illegal has been overturned by a higher court. One of the most recent firebombings of a Protestant church – in this case a Charismatic one - occurred in Shlisselburg near St. Petersburg on 14 May.
Vitaly Vlasenko, the RUECB’s Department Director for External Church Relations and Board Chairman of Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast Foundation explained: “We need to inform local authorities that Protestants are also Christians, that we play a significant role in developing Russian society. Some government officials are ignorant of important facts and some religious leaders do not dialogue well with others. That creates antagonism. We Protestants are also guilty – it is not just the other party.”
In a meeting with senior Baptist pastors in Moscow on 18 June, Pastor Callam, the head of an organization representing a Baptist community of 105 million, noted that Baptist numbers are shrinking only in Europe. He recommended that Russian Baptists take the cultural and musical tastes of their youth very seriously. Modern Christian music may not be to the liking of adults, but we must accept it for the sake of winning our young.
In an aside, the General-Secretary mentioned the BWA´s relations with the US-based, 16,3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, which withdrew from the BWA in October 2004. He reported on honest and very cordial conversations with their leaders, adding: “My prayer is that they will return home during my term. And when they return, our arms will be open wide.” Callam began his first term as General-Secretary last September.
In a response to the delegation’s visit, President Sipko stated: “Brother Callam is a President of colour. Actually, before God, we are all people of colour. We are all beautiful; all of us are his favourites. Brother Callam is a wonderful demonstration of God’s total lack of partisanship. In Christ there are neither Jews nor Greeks. The General-Secretary is a passionate evangelist and a true follower of Christ. I am sure that God will be glorified through him.”
Neville Callam was accompanied by Dr. John Sundquist, a retired missions leader of the Valley Forge-based “American Baptist Churches” and former BWA-Vice President.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 21 June 2008
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #08-27, 1.253 words.