Features

Divide and conquer

Russia | Baptists in poor villages are the latest victims in a nationwide strategy to amplify state control over religion

Issue: "Post-party election blues?," Nov. 6, 2004

In the grindingly poor village of Lyubuchany, Russian Baptists are patiently rebuilding a house church that was deliberately burned down last month. The arsonists escaped, but evidence suggests that they were connected with Russia's secret police. Earlier this year a house church of the same denomination in Tula, 60 miles farther south of Moscow, fell victim to a similar attack. Strikingly, both congregations have hosted major regional or national conferences for co-religionists from across Russia.

The timing of the Tula attack was especially suspicious. In January the house church there was about to host two gatherings: a meeting of about 70 of the denomination's pastors from places as remote as Kazakhstan, then a conference on evangelization for some 400 rank-and-file Baptists from various towns. Some of these visitors had already arrived, and were sleeping next door, when an explosion devastated the house church's interior between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. on Jan. 13. The explosion warped the brick walls and nearly collapsed the roof. Two church members were hospitalized.

Pastor Aleksandr Lakhtikov told the Forum 18 News Service that the firemen who responded to the blast were accompanied by an official from the FSB secret police. Local officials and the state-controlled media quickly announced that the explosion had been caused by a natural-gas leak. But the pastor noted that municipal gas inspectors who visited the site about five hours after the explosion found no trace of domestic gas. Such traces usually linger for days after an accident.

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One might think that this was just vandalism by petty criminals-but two well-targeted acts of vandalism within one year, against two different congregations, seem unlikely.

The Sept. 14 torching of the Baptist house church in Lyubuchany was more directly linked to state harassment. Yelena Kareyeva, a member of the congregation, told International Religious Freedom Watch when we visited last month that just three days before the fire her son had seen two suspicious-looking men loitering in the adjacent forest. Her son recognized one of them: In August he had taken part in a massive police operation against a gathering hosted by the congregation for several thousand Baptists from all over central Russia.

As many as 200 servicemen from various security agencies, including the local police and the FSB, showed up to disrupt that open-air gathering. They even brought along laborers to remove the Baptists' tents and pews, and plainclothes personnel to film them. As pastor Nikolai Dudenkov told International Religious Freedom Watch, they came "prepared as if for a terrorist attack"-with machine guns, helmets, and gas masks. They brandished an official decree barring "unsanctioned gatherings of a religious nature"-even though this gathering was on privately owned land, with the landlord's consent. They set up roadblocks to keep outsiders from arriving by car.

The Baptists nevertheless persisted in exercising their constitutional right to preach and worship on private property; many of them traveled the last few miles on foot. The police in turn persisted in trying to intimidate the worshippers, checking identity papers and recording names. One plainclothes official said, "Do you think that all of this is taking place without the consent of the president's administration?"

Just three weeks later the Lyubuchany house church was burned down. The local Baptists believe that the government agent seen reconnoitering the site a few days earlier helped to plan it.

Lyubuchany and Tula Baptists are especially vulnerable to a state-sponsored strategy of intimidation that plays into larger goals of restoring Kremlin control to everyday life. For the last decade the Russian government has followed "divide and rule" tactics of discriminating not just between religions but between factions within a single religion: Russia now has favored and disfavored Jews, favored and disfavored Orthodox Christians, and so on. Among the Baptists the disfavored group is the unregistered Union of Baptist Churches, which split from the larger Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in 1961 after the latter agreed to compromise with the Soviet regime on issues such as a ban on teaching religion to children. Precisely because they chose a principled stance, following the apostles' example to "obey God rather than men," the unregistered Baptists still endure extra hardships under Russia's current rulers.

Sadly, the unregistered Baptists' history makes them unattractive to many Western-based missionary organizations. Lacking good political connections, they are not nearly as useful as the mainstream Baptists in hosting foreign visitors and smoothing out legal difficulties and local access. Many American Protestants do not even know that they exist-or that lately their hardships have been growing.

Since the mid-1990s the unregistered Baptists have faced difficulties in exercising the free-speech rights supposedly guaranteed by Russia's 1993 constitution; for example, in distributing religious tracts in public. Until recently they were able to feel secure when meeting for prayer on their own property. Now even those overall prospects look increasingly grim. Though Vladimir Putin likes to invoke Christian imagery, especially when meeting with naïve Western politicians, his first loyalty is to the secret police to which he continues to give more powers. His administration has little love for independent-minded religious minorities who refuse to function as extensions of the state.

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