Minsk Pentecostals Meet in a Former Cow Barn

What Kinds of Stereotypes Exist?


A Belarusian Charismatic in conversation with the KGB




M o s c o w – Ears perked when Sergey Lukanin reported in a press release on his conversation after being summoned to the Belarusian KGB on 3 June. Lukanin (born 1970) is a professional barrister, advocate and press speaker for Minsk’s 1.000+-member Charismatic “New Life” congregation. In the next-to-last paragraph of his press release of 6 June (see „www.newlife.by“), Lukanin asks the KGB when it will stop treating the Charismatics as enemies. The KGB-representative responded: “It is possible that in the current situation negative stereotypes predominate on both sides.” He proposed thereby that negotiations led by a nationally-known mediator trusted by both parties could lead to a significant release of tension. I was therefore eager to hear from Lukanin on 19 June how he describes the stereotypes prevalent on the Charismatic end. Was it conceivable that both parties were finally willing to push the Obama administration’s famous “reset” button?


Lukanin noted in an elaborate response that his congregation was still restricted to an island existence. New Life, which holds its services in a refurbished, 2002-purchased cowshed on the Western edge of the city, is still forced to produce its own power and heat. Its bank account remains frozen. The city’s first eviction order arrived in 2005; municipal authorities and the church have been locked in combat ever since.


This church, which was founded by 22-year-old Vyacheslav Goncharenko in 1992, had split off from the country’s Pentecostal union. This Neo-Pentecostal or Charismatic denomination now has a network of nearly 10 congregations throughout the country and calls itself “Full-Gospel Fellowship”. It claims to have no closer partner in the West; it is in any case theologically allied with the Riga/Latvia-based “New Generation” denomination headed by the politically-rightist Alexey Ladyaev and the Texas-based “Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministers International”.


Lukanin reports that relations between the state and the Charismatic movement have recovered somewhat from their low point in 2007-2008. No Protestant pastors are presently jailed; some property taxes have been dropped for churches and the state’s ban on public advertising for sorcery is interpreted as a gesture of good will. Yet the barrister sees no progress on the fundamental issues involving New Life; “Nothing has changed since the conversation with the KGB.”


Arguments in defence of the church

In our conversation, Lukanin could not describe any stereotype harboured by his church regarding representatives of the Belarusian government – but he could list a stereotypical view held by the other side. Orthodox church and government circles frequently claim New Life has sought conflict with the state for the sake of obtaining international renown and funding.


Yet the church’s speaker insists that his church is only responding to government provocations. The church conducts itself strictly in a defensive and non-political fashion; it itself does not initiate anti-government activities. The state acts – his church only reacts. This negates the theory that conflict situations can consist of an endless chain and spiral of reactions by which both sides egg each other on to ever greater “deeds of misfortune”.


According to Lukanin, the conflict only began after the state initiated attempts to wrest the church from its hard-won real estate: “We only criticise the state if it infringes upon our constitutional rights.” He reported that his church has denounced the subservience of the courts to political offices. “But that is simply an undisputable fact, a long-term status,” he insisted. “We are only claiming that which is already totally clear.”


Matters of dispute are spiritualised. Lukanin stated for ex.: “We were motivated by the desire to defend out property, to defend that which God had presented to us.” When God decrees, non-compliance can only be interpreted as religious disobedience. In this fashion, Charismatics and many other believers remove themselves from the debate on the pros and cons of their actions.


The claim to passive behaviour is also evident in the matter of coalition partners. I made the claim that seeking the support of Minsk’s Western embassies only confirmed the suspicion that this church was an entity of Western origin alien to Belarusian turf. The barrister responded that his body did not actively select its friends. “We are open to all persons of good will,” he insisted. The ambassadors of Western governments had visited New Life repeatedly simply “because God had moved their hearts”. In one instance, a delegation from the state-allied BSRM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union) movement paid the unique church building a visit. Sergey Lukanin is a charming person – he quickly won the sympathy of his guests. For the sake of his church’s work, Lukanin accepted the gift of $20 US they offered him.


Matters more active than reactive

The gathering of protest signatures, the church’s hunger strike in October 2006 and Lukanin’s highly-public appearances at international forums (OSCE in Romania, EU in Brussels, Christian-Democratic summit in Helsinki for ex.) seem to indicate a politically active stance. Indeed, New Life is the leading Protestant voice of opposition in the country. It does not restrict itself to its own immediate concerns when addressing the public. In the conversation on 19 June Lukanin assured: “If the state acts contrary to God’s laws, if it uses violence against the people, if it acts unjustly - then God calls on the church to reveal and denounce both the sin and the sinner.”


Last October, public figures signed an appeal supporting New Life in its legal struggle with the state. Lukanin claims that his church is neither member nor participant of the “Belarusian Christian Democracy”. Yet three of the seven signing this appeal are leaders within this party. Lukanin is a close friend of one of them: Party President Vitaly Rymashevsky, who was imprisoned after the elections on 19 December. “I support him and he is a friend of our family.”


Some statements made by these Christian Democrats could be interpreted as theocratic. In an interview with a Ukrainian, Charismatic news agency, the Protestant dissident Andrey Kim predicted: “Belarus will be a country in which not the human being, but rather God, will be the highest good. The law, namely God’s law, will rule – not arbitrariness.”


In great contrast to the country’s registered Baptists, who prefer to settle their differences with the state behind closed doors, New Life is not afraid to act confrontationally. On 19 June Lukanin even reported on a transfer of power: The threatened seizure of its property by the militia has never taken place – even though the congregation would not attempt to defend itself by force. For years, the congregation has been able to sustain its decision to deny entry into its building to any representative of the state arriving under state orders. “We conclude that God has taken away their power and given it to us. We have power, for we know that justice is on our side. The truth is on our side.” Who could prevail against such a force?


More than a few Orthodox observers give New Life a more modest rating. One Minsk scholar claimed that the seven persons signing the October appeal in support of the church had thereby spoiled all chances of ever again obtaining Orthodox votes. The signers included the leading oppositional politician Andrei Sannikov, who has been imprisoned since 19 December. But such an assessment is probably also an overstatement of Protestant significance – they make up no more than 1% of the Belarusian populace.


I assume that if it remains impossible for the still-unnamed mediator to reach the “reset” button, the process of egging each other on to “misdeeds” of ever greater consequence will continue indefinitely. If attempts to stop and reboot the computer do not succeed, then a possible process of mutual learning is far from imminent.


Though more than a few of Belarus’ church buildings and religious gatherings are technically illegal, they are nevertheless tolerated. At least one of Minsk’s technically-illegal churches is marked on a popular city map. In Russia, not even long-time Protestant churches – Moscow’s famous “Central Baptist Church” for ex. – show up on city maps. But there might be an occasional exception in Russia.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Moscow, 28 June 2011


The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-12, 1.338 words, 8.409 keystrokes and spaces.