Vitaly Vlasenko: Entering through Open Doors
“Many Orthodox doors are open to Baptists and it is very important that we locate those doors and pass through them.“ That was one comment made by Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Church Relations for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB), following a hearty reception by Alexy (Kutepov) , the Metropolitan of Tula and Yefremov, in Tula on 31 May. Much to the surprise of Vlasenko and the two local Baptist pastors accompanying him, the Metropolitan had gathered 25 to 30 other Orthodox clergy, all members of the Tula eparchy (south of Moscow), for the meeting.
It was an initial getting-acquainted session and Vlasenko made it a point in his speech to stress the commonalties: the joint belief in Christ as Saviour, the struggle for traditional marriage and family values, as well as the fact that that all of them share a common (Russian) nationality. Regarding the claim that all of Russia is the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, Vlasenko attempted to point out that canonical territory can only refer to the heart and mind – not geography.
Rev. Vlasenko reported afterward: “We want the congregations from both sides in Tula region to get to know each other; they should exchange email and phone numbers. Instead of guessing who the other side might be, we will then have faces of concrete people with concrete opinions in mind. We want to show them respect and hope to be respected in return.”
The Government Checked Out Religious NGOs After All
Initially, religious organisations had been excluded from the new Russian legislation intended to restrict the activities of foreign-funded, non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But thousands of them – including Orthodox organisations and individual Protestant congregations – were visited by government officials during April and May. The Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog “Forum 18” spoke though only of a “mixed response to sweeping government checks”. It added: "In some regions, Public Prosecutor employees are quite zealous. But the majority of them did their work quite formally, understanding that they just needed to submit reports saying they had checked." Protestant leaders described themselves as unconcerned. A Charismatic pastor claimed: “The inspections were conducted tactfully. As far as I know, no one had any problems."
Serious problems had occurred previously in November 2012. In the course of a surprise check, government forces including riot police in camouflage with unmuzzled dogs had surrounded and forcibly entered (in some instances) staff quarters at a Protestant rehab centre for drug addicts. They entered at six in the morning, badly frightening approx. 150 sleeping staff members and children. “New Life”, one of Russia’s largest church-run rehabilitation centres, is located in Leningrad Region near the border with Estonia and is run by the big Pentecostal and Charismatic “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE).
During the ensuing uproar, Sergey Esipov, the Deputy Prosecutor for Leningrad Region, was fired. Yet the Investigator’s Office refused to lodge criminal charges against the Prosecutor’s Office due to “lack of evidence”. In the court case that followed, the Baptist Anatoly Pchelintsev, head lawyer for Moscow’s “Slavic Legal Centre”, charged the government with illegal entry, illegal arrest and abuse of power. On 26 April, Kingiseppe municipal court judge Ludmila Zhukova ruled in the church’s favour: The refusal to open a criminal case against the Prosecutor’s Office was deemed unconstitutional. Settlements are pending.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 14 June 2013