Lights on Low but Spirits on High
National Russian Baptist Congress on Schedule as Planned
M o s c o w -- Only several hours after a local ban had apparently been overturned, the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”’ (RUECB) biannual national congress, “Transformation 2008”, began on schedule on the evening of 31 July. This third national congress is taking place at the “Little Creek” (Rucheyek) children’s camp near the village of Rumyantsevo 60 kilometres west of Moscow. The first full day of activity on 1 August was marked by incredible music, worship services, seminars, joyous reunions and frolicking crowds of children. Vitaly Vlasenko, the RUECB’s Director for External Church Relations, stated at noon on 2 August: “People are overjoyed, the mood is terrific and the Holy Spirit is moving in an impressive way!”
Strong Protestant solidarity was evident from the outset: Both Pavel Okara, President of the Pentecostal "Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith", and Sergey Ryakhovsky, the politically-active Bishop of the Charismatic "Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith", spoke at the opening session. Duma member Sergey Popov, who had cordially hosted Baptist World Alliance (BWA) General-Secretary Neville Callam in mid-June, sent the opening assembly a word of greeting.
Things had looked bleak only a day before. On 29 July, the major “Interfax” news service and Moscow radio had brought the headline that “3.000 Russian Baptists are intending to hold a conference at a children’s camp despite its ban by regional authorities”. It added that the prohibition had already been in place for several months. The reason given was gross overcrowding – the camp has beds for no more than 350 persons. The “Interfax” release closed with an ambiguous police warning that any attempt by Baptists to convene despite the ban could “bring about various conflicts and uncontrollable situations”.
Spirits hit a low mark on 30 July when RUECB headquarters in Moscow were mysteriously left without power and telephone service for most of the day. As late as the forenoon of the 31st, the paper “Novie Izvestia” reported: “The Little Creek has dried up.” The conference’s government detractors have not taken their setback lightly. At 18,00 hrs on 1 August, a local decree banning the event as of 10,00 hrs the same morning was handed to congress leadership. Despite strong on-site cooperation between the congress and police, local officials have gone to some lengths to make the meeting as uncomfortable as possible for participants. Electrical power to the camp was cut off two hours before the opening on 31 July and is not to be restored until 4 August. The congress is surviving on emergency electrical power.
The Baptist Response
The two sides are quoting from differing laws. Detractors quote from the law “On Assemblies, Meetings, Demonstrations, Processions and Picketing”. Yet RUECB-leadership remains adamant that the congress “Transformation” never had been officially forbidden. Citing the federal law „On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations“ from 26 September 1997, it has continually described the congress as an internal church event not requiring government sanction. Current law states that church officials must only inform state channels no less than 10 days prior to such events. The congress may well have a legal follow-up.
In final negotiations with regional authorities on 31 July, Vitaly Vlasenko cited the pedagogical gains which the congress will bring to its many youthful participants. The congress even has as it motto the words: “Be an example.” An increase in hygienic facilities and tent space for sleeping may also have encouraged the change-of-heart among some regional authorities. Slightly more than 2.000 persons are registered for the event. Initial national Baptist congresses had been held in Bryansk near the Belorussian border in 2004 and 2006 without political incident.
Outside observers are constantly confounded by the discrepancies apparent in Russian church-state relations. The BWA-delegation led by the Jamaican Neville Callam had been feted and celebrated by government representatives. Alexander Torshin from the ruling „United Russia“ party had even suggested that Baptists help resettle the vast expanses of Russia. (See our press release from 21.06.2008.) Yet on 25 July, the Public Prosecutor in the Moscow city district of Perov declared a congregation belonging to the Baptist-related “Russian Association of Independent Evangelical Churches” an extremist organisation. This places the 250-member congregation in danger of losing its registration.
Regarding the congress, Vlasenko explained: “This is one more example of the constant collisions between local and
federal authority. Local officials are not familiar with current federal law. Local politicians, especially those far from Moscow, may be more under the influence of local friends than of
national legislation. We Baptists frequently visit federal officials here in Moscow. But regional authorities usually still give us a cold shoulder.” Citing historical repression of the Baptist
movement by the Soviet government, the paper “Novie Izvestia” assured: The serious repression of the past is gone for good, but “the inertia of bygone relations with the Baptists still resurfaces
The “Little Creek” children’s camp, which once belonged to the Young Pioneers, is owned by the „Association of Brethren Churches“ (ABC). The ABC and the independent denomination mentioned above are members of the “Public Council”, an umbrella organisation of Baptist-related denominations. This camp was also the setting for the founding conference of the Russian Evangelical Alliance with 150 participants in April 2003.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 02 August 2008
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. May be published freely. Release #08-34, 865 words.