KRASNODAR, Russia -- When graduate student Dima Belozyorov took a late-night study break from his Russian literature assignment and turned on the television in his Krasnodar apartment, he was aghast to see a documentary disparaging evangelicals. "The program reported the Adventist Church in Krasnodar was printing Satanic Bibles and using human blood for ink," he told WORLD. "They also alleged that the church commits a dozen ritual murders each year."
The television program that aired in Russia's southwestern agricultural region is part of a yearlong, nationwide media campaign sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church. The pseudo-documentaries are designed to persuade the Russian people that evangelicals are crazed members of heretical "sects." According to Mr. Belozyorov, "Another episode depicted Christians as demented cult members convulsing on the floor and frothing at the mouth."
Designed to sway public opinion against the evangelical community, the television programs are making an impact. Local officials evicted Grace Community Church, with 40 members, from a cultural center building where they had worshipped for years. Church leaders say they have been unable to rent facilities anywhere in Krasnodar for Sunday worship services since the documentaries.
"It began a few years ago as a 'whispering campaign,'" says Andrei Blinkov, pastor of the Church of Evangelical Christians. "Russian Orthodox Church leaders began quietly asking politicians and bureaucrats to restrict evangelical activities." The government responded in 1997 when then-President Boris Yeltsin signed an anti-religious law subjecting new Protestant churches to surveillance and prohibited new church groups unless they could demonstrate 15 years of affiliation to formal, sanctioned activities. Without government approval a church cannot build, open a bank account, or hire a pastor. "The government is making all religious gatherings difficult-even in private homes," Mr. Blinkov told WORLD. "There is now a tedious application process for churches 'to confirm the religious character of the church doctrine and practice.'. . . In effect it is a ban of religious association."
The half-hour television messages broadcast throughout Russia are the latest attempt by the Russian Orthodox Church to create fear and disgust toward evangelicals. "What began as a campaign of disinformation has grown into full-fledged harassment and persecution," said Mr. Blinkov. The media crusade prompted authorities in the Krasnodar region to deny Protestant churches access to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, and army units for meetings-all places where they were previously welcomed.
"The Russian Orthodox Church has succeeded in poisoning the water with this propaganda," Mr. Blinkov told WORLD. "Government bureaucrats and private property owners are afraid of renting facilities to evangelicals."
Sasha Yaroshkevich, pastor of Krasnodar's Bethany Church, said local officials will not allow his 2,000-member congregation to rent or build facilities in the city of nearly 1 million people. His church has resorted to conducting services in tents erected on the outskirts of Krasnodar. Mr. Yaroshkevich says evangelical churches throughout Russia are finding it equally difficult to rent facilities.
Russia encompasses 1,000-plus years of church history, tracing its roots to the year 988 and its apostolic succession through the Patriarch of Constantinople. In the 15th century, the Russian Orthodox Church became a uniquely separate branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Over time it incorporated paganism, animism, and religious icons into its traditions. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Marxist leaders brutally persecuted the Russian Orthodox Church. Communist atheism barely tolerated Christianity and only when it could be used as a tool to placate the masses. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the church regained purpose and clout. In 2004 the Russian government returned most of the church's vast holdings, including nearly 12 million acres of land.
Today 55 percent of the Russian people consider themselves Russian Orthodox while 32 percent, primarily the younger generation, describe themselves as completely nonreligious. Evangelicals account for a scant one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation's population.
The current anti-evangelical media campaign is fueling deep-seated fears in the Protestant community. Nicolay Berezénko, a furniture maker and member of a Krasnodar-area Baptist Church, said, "The early 1990s was a time of relative peace for Christians." Now prejudice against Protestant Christians is so exaggerated that they are not even desirable as converts in the Russian Orthodox Church, he said, while "Muslims, Jews, and unbelievers are welcome in the Russian Orthodox Church."
The Protestant community is also deeply divided. Infighting among denominations has weakened the evangelical community. "We are distrusting of each other, critical of doctrinal variances and in constant fear of harassment. Under these toxic conditions the Protestant church will not grow," Mr. Berezénko said.
The Russian Orthodox Church considers all alternative forms of Christianity a threat to its religious authority and to its claim as "state church." Encroachment into Russia by other Christian denominations is a particularly sensitive subject for leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church since coming out of its own period of persecution. These leaders also recite the mantra that evangelicals are a distasteful and perverted form of "Western" religion.
"The Orthodox Church is exercising 'religious might' and staking out their territory," said retired military officer Vladimir Gagaryshev. "We Russians must learn how to exercise our new freedoms. Nothing can change if evangelicals cower like dogs."