11/15/2017, 09.54
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Russian Baptist Christians targeted in latest persecutions

by Vladimir Rozanskij

A Prayer House closed down in Tula (central Russia) and owners of the building fined. Many recall the violence suffered by evangelical-Baptists during the atheistic dictatorship of the USSR. The Baptists suffer the same fate of Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology. The Law on registration for Places of Worship.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – An Evangelicals Baptist Prayer House (see photo) in Tula, central Russia, has been closed down 26 years after its erection at the beginning of the Yeltsin era. The deputy Provincial Inspector General for the Territory for the Tula Region, a bureaucrat whose name is evocative of Gogol’s literature, Viktoria Ishutina, issued Decree no. 118-UR-T / 17 of 31.08.2017 condemning the local Baptists to a fine of 10 thousand rubles (about two hundred euros) for each of the building owners, two pensioners, Olga Astakhova and Ljubov 'Bogdanova. They have been charged with improper use of the building (which houses accommodation and a prayer room).

The Council of the Evangelical-Baptist Churches was born clandestinely in the 1960s, and their systematic refusal of official registration has always been part of their missionary style. Their Houses of Prayer are rather spartan and non-invasive buildings, though they often take on the obvious architecture of churches.

Under the atheist dictatorship of the USSR, the Baptists were among those most affected by regime repression, for they refused to register with local authorities. After the collapse of communism, and up to the new 2016 Law on Registration (the "Jarovoj Law", taking the name of the deputy who signed it Irina Jarovoj), the free communities of evangelical Baptists could live and preach peacefully even without registering , albeit some tensions remained  with the controlling bodies. Apparently, today they are once again subjected to prohibitions and restraints similar to Soviet times.

The fine for the Tula Prayer House was issued at the end of August on the indications of local police officers who reported the placement of the sign on the door "Church of Tula CCEB" together with the timetables of the biblical library and worship as evidence. In the protocol delivered to the owners, it was stated that after 8 February 2018, the house and land would be confiscated in case of persistent infringement. Inspector Ishutina, even went as far as personally warning members of the community that the measure against them was a trial run for similar confiscations throughout the region. According to the same Baptists, the inspector said that "religious associations have the right to pray and carry out their worship in private homes but do not have the right to use private homes and land belonging to them as places of worship , without first obtaining a permit from the local administration under the terms of the law", referring to a paragraph of the Code for Land Registry.

Believers attempted to prove that the sign on the door which reads "Prayer House" corresponds to the norms that allow them to come together in prayer without changing the specification on the land registry, referring in turn to an article of the law on freedom of conscience and of religious association. The article states that no authority can prohibit owners of a home from carrying out religious functions in it. The impression is that this is not a question of interpretation of norms, but of the decision to apply the measures already taken against Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology groups also to Baptists. Without even waiting for the terms issued by the same administrative decree, electricity and gas supplies were cut to the entire building, urging residents to leave or change the legal nature of the property.

The two house owners, along with the entire community, do not intend to submit to sanctions and are trying to appeal against them. Moreover, in several cases fines and limitations have been issued to Baptist missionaries, even with raids in various private homes during prayer meetings. The fine is usually pronounced against the pastor of the community, accusing him of not having a official permit to conduct religious activity. This was the case last August 4 in the Brjansk region (a fine of 15,000 rubles to Pastor Dmitry Berdnikov, accused of illegally video-taping a catechetical meeting). On July 26, a similar fine of 10,000 rubles was issued against the pastor Pavel Shpak, denounced by the students of a local high school. On the same day in Voronezh, two women were handed down a fine for 5 thousand rubles, for having distributed copies of the Gospels and the magazine titled "Do you believe us?", to the passers-by. Many other similar measures have been enacted under the Jarovoj law.

The new wave of discrimination of religious minorities, which is dragging the nation back to the Soviet climate of 50 years ago, is provoking strong emotional reactions among believers: Baptists are among those who have given the bravest testimony of resistance to the persecution of the past regime. Just as then, community members have begun gathering in squares and public parks and singing prayers, almost provoking the police into arresting them and publishing newsletters that tell the stories of the authorities’ repression, similar to the famous Bulletin of the Baptist Prisoners of samizdat of the 1970s.

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