Religious Freedom Issues
HAS BULLDOZING THREAT TO BAPTIST CHURCH RECEDED?
Forum 18 News, 4/25/2005
Russia - A 19 April court hearing against Yelena Kareyeva - owner of a Baptist church in the village of Lyubuchany near Moscow whose construction the authorities say was "unauthorised" - was cancelled.
Moscow-based
Baptist pastor Nikolai Dudenkov told Forum 18 News Service that no future
hearing was mentioned nor was any explanation given at the courthouse for
the cancellation. Local Baptists hope the authorities' threat to bulldoze
the new church - built to replace the previous church destroyed last
September in an arson attack some believe was state-initiated - have now
receded. The plight of the Baptists has gained international attention,
with two US congressmen writing to the local authorities in February to
complain about official attempts to prevent the rebuilding of the church.
But a 5 March letter from Moscow region prosecutor's office defends the
actions of the local authorities.

RUSSIA: HAS BULLDOZING THREAT TO BAPTIST CHURCH RECEDED?

By Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18 News Service

Threats by the state authorities in Moscow region's Chekhov district to
bulldoze a Baptist prayer house built to replace one destroyed by arson
appear to have receded, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A 19 April local
court hearing against the owner of the new prayer house, Yelena Kareyeva,
"was cancelled, thank God," Moscow-based Baptist pastor Nikolai
Dudenkov told Forum 18 on 20 April. There was neither mention of a future
hearing nor any explanation given at the courthouse for the cancellation,
he added.

Seeking clarification, Forum 18 was directed by Chekhov district public
prosecutor's office to Chekhov district court on 22 April, where a
secretary insisted that only Judge Svetlana Tsvirko could provide further
information. Judge Tsvirko's telephone went unanswered on 22 and 25 April.

Kareyeva's application for permission to rebuild following the September
2004 arson attack in Chekhov district's village of Lyubuchany remaining
unanswered, the Council of Churches Baptists have now almost completed a
replacement prayer house on the previous site - and have documented
repeated state threats to remove it. On 12 November 2004, for example,
officers of the local police department for wanted criminals reportedly
visited Kareyeva bearing a written demand that construction of the new
prayer house be curtailed: "Instead of pursuing the law by
investigating the arson attack on our building, we were warned that it
would all end with a suit being filed and a court decision made to remove
our building with bulldozers!"

On 30 January 2005, the Council of Churches Baptists announced that
Chekhov district administration had indeed filed suit against Kareyeva,
ordering the removal of the "unauthorised construction" on her
land. A hearing scheduled for 2 February did not take place, however,
since Chekhov administration reportedly failed to send a representative to
the court, and was postponed to 19 April.

The Lyubuchany Baptists maintain that they held worship services at their
old private prayer house - something permitted to unregistered
religious groups under Russian law - "for many years without
disturbing anyone". Like other communities in CIS countries belonging
to the Council of Churches Baptists, the 50-strong congregation refuses on
principle to register with the state authorities.

There is some suggestion that the state authorities were linked to the
arson attack. Interviewed by Forum 18 shortly afterwards, Yelena Kareyeva
mentioned that her teenage sons had seen the same plain clothes officer
who dislocated the finger of a young Baptist during the break-up of a late
August 2004 religious convention in the village loitering near the prayer
house three days before it was burnt down (see F18News 22 September 2004
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=417). In their statement on
the 12 November 2004 police visit, the Lyubuchany Baptists maintain that,
just as before the September attack, "unknown persons" are
keeping constant watch on them.

The Lyubuchany Baptists' predicament has since become the focus of
international attention. On 18 February 2005 two United States congressmen
who chair the Washington-based Commission for Security and Cooperation in
Europe wrote to Chekhov district administration expressing concern
regarding the allegations of violence against the Lyubuchany congregation
and governmental efforts to prevent the reconstruction of its worship
facility. "We are particularly alarmed by reports that government
officials are now suing the Baptists in Chekhov District Court to prevent
them from rebuilding their church," states the letter. "We urge
your administration to vigorously investigate the arson case and to fully
prosecute the perpetrators, rather than the victims, and work to
facilitate the rebuilding process." The situation featured
prominently in the Commission's 14 April 2005 hearing on the status of
unregistered religious groups in Russia (for Forum 18's statement to this
hearing, see F18News 14 April 2005
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=543).

In a 5 March 2005 response to a complaint from California representatives
of the Council of Churches Baptists, Moscow Region public prosecutor's
office defends the action of the Chekhov district authorities. The
response, of which Forum 18 has received a copy, insists that Chekhov
public prosecutor's office is investigating the arson attack. It also
points out that, in accordance with Russia's 1997 religion law, religious
meetings not taking place at houses of worship or their adjacent
territory, other premises offered to religious organisations for religious
purposes or belonging to them, pilgrimage sites, cemeteries or private
homes are subject to the law on demonstrations, which requires organisers
of public events to notify the local state authorities in advance.

Since, according to Moscow Region public prosecutor's office, the
Lyubuchany land rented to Baptist Viktor Chekanov "was offered for
agricultural purposes and not intended for him to use for a large-scale
religious service," the August 2004 gathering of 5,000 worshippers at
this site without notifying the local authorities in advance constituted a
violation of the law. (While also noting that Russia's 2002 extremism law
forbids demonstrations from being accompanied by "extremist
activity", the letter does not state in what way this relates to the
Baptists' convention.) Although Russia's 2004 demonstrations law requires
state authorities to prevent unsanctioned meetings from taking place,
continues the prosecutor's office, "Chekhov district administration,
police and other security agencies did not take any decision to end the
meeting by force."

The 5 March letter also maintains that, since the Baptists' event was
unsanctioned and involved a large concentration of people on unsuitable
territory, "unforeseen circumstances, terrorist attacks or
provocation" could have occurred, which led to the decision to send
representatives of the law enforcement agencies "to regulate
proceedings and ensure the security of those citizens present".
According to Chekhov's police and FSB security police departments, it
states, "no force was used against participants in the worship
service, and no one was prosecuted or detained."

The Council of Churches Baptists maintain that the law enforcement
agencies tried but failed to end their August 2004 religious gathering and
that their behaviour was rough and threatening (see F18News 22 September
2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=417).

Of particular note in the response from Moscow Region public prosecutor's
office is the statement that the Council of Churches Baptists "is not
registered in the legally prescribed manner" which, it claimed,
"constitutes a gross violation of the law". In fact, there is no
legal requirement in Russia for religious communities to register.
© Forum 18 News