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Alexander Zemlianchenko Jr./AP

A war for souls

Russia | Recent elections and ongoing restrictions only point to the deeper conflict tearing at Russian life

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

Russia's departing president, Vladimir Putin, has been hailed as a shaping influence of the 21st century. He rebuilt Russia's collapsed economy-paving the way for the rise of the planet's largest country back to world power status-and was rewarded by his order-starved constituents with 70 percent approval ratings. His no-nonsense demeanor and ability to bring order out of chaos has undoubtedly been good for the Russian economy.

But it has come at a price. The Putin era has been marred with freedom-squelching policies reminiscent of the former Soviet Union, and some analysts say there is little hope for a reversal any time soon.

In May Putin will leave his post as president and assume the role of prime minister, a largely ceremonial position. His protégé, 42-year-old Dmitry Medvedev, will take over as president, but most signs point toward a continuation of Putin's influence and a growing dynasty that jails critics, muzzles the media, and threatens to halt church-related endeavors.

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Russia's March 2 presidential election may have reflected the will of the people as Medvedev captured more than 70 percent of the vote, but observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said the election was neither free nor fair, and post-election mayhem signaled an extension of tight-reigned rule as many protesters were tackled and arrested. "Fifteen years ago I wouldn't have thought that my children would be growing up in a country that reminds me so much of the Soviet Union," 48-year-old Alexander Ivanov said.

The church in Russia faces its own set of challenges. Arrests and deportations of local pastors preceded the March election, and the head pastor of the region's largest church believes the Kremlin is worried about a movement similar to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine several years ago.

Sunday Adelaja, a 40-year-old native Nigerian, is the pastor of God's Embassy church in Kiev, Ukraine. He says the church's massive congregation was a rallying force behind the 2004 Orange Revolution, which drew as many as 1 million people onto the frigid streets of Kiev for massive demonstrations against election fraud.

"When the [presidential] election was rigged, our people took to the streets together with other members of the country. It was easier for our members to gather a lot of people together because we have 20,000 people gathering together every week," Adelaja told WORLD. When Ukraine's Supreme Court ordered a re-vote, members of his church got involved as secretaries, election observers, and organizers.

A second election was declared fair, and Viktor Yushchenko was declared the victor over the previously declared winner-widely viewed as Putin's man. "We now have a government that is pro-West, pro-democratic, and actually wants to join NATO. So they blame the church for that because a lot of church members were involved."

Similar involvement in Russian elections hasn't been as successful. Four pastors from Adelaja's satellite churches in Russia were arrested in the months leading up to Russia's presidential election, and the church's senior pastor in Russia was recently deported. Adelaja-who was deported from Russia in 2006-says many of his church leaders have been questioned about their connection to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and he claims one of his pastors was locked in an office for a day, told to renounce the revolution, and asked to be an informant for the FSB (the former KGB).

Churches in Russia also are constricted by policies requiring congregations to report how much money they take in and how that money is spent. Building permits are difficult to obtain, and foreign visitors to churches often face many obstacles. A new visa law taking effect this month threatens to severely restrict missionary activity in Russia by limiting visits to 90 days followed by a 90-day required leave.

For many Russian Christians, the challenges over the Putin years have been discouraging. Mark Elliott, a professor at Southern Wesleyan University and editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, says that the number of believers has increased but so has the number of Christians who immigrate to the West: "If you visit Sacramento, Calif., you might think you were in Russia or Ukraine. There are over 40 Russian or Ukrainian churches and some of those congregations have dozens of former pastors from the Soviet Union in their ranks."

Pastors who remain in Russia face growing isolation in the coming years, and Adelaja says they need encouragement from fellow believers in the form of mission trips and invitations to fellowship with Western congregations.

Adelaja says the biggest problem in Russia right now is not Putin's course of action, but the ignorance of the people: "Most people say, 'As long as we have food on the table, we don't care. We just vote for the man who is giving us food.' This is slave mentality."

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