This is a collection of Terry Mattingly’s “On Religion” columns preceeding, during and after the Moscow Project in 1991. They were written for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. Mattingly teaches communications at Milligan College in East Tennessee. Many of these columns were written while Mattingly was teaching as Communicator on Culture at Denver Seminary.
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 3/27/91
The annual Moscow Book Fair has become a fine laboratory in which to study political and cultural changes in the Soviet Union.
Doctrinaire Communist works are “out.” American books and magazines are “in,” along with those from Soviet writers willing to test the boundaries of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost.
On most days about 30,000 pack the Moscow exhibits. The book fair has become, in many ways, and intellectual and spiritual version of Russians flocking to fast-food outlets to sample American burgers and fries.
Two years ago, Christian groups set up a booth to hand out 10,000 Russian-language New Testaments.
The result was a mob scene that even drew the attention of secular journalists. The supply of scriptures ran out in a few hours. Obviously, a few thousand New Testaments weren’t enough.
How about 4 million?
That’s the number of Russian New Testaments an international coalition plans to distribute in the Soviet Union by the end of 1991, during an ecumenical push called the Moscow Project.
Many outsiders misunderstand the nature of the scripture shortage inside the Soviet Union, stressed Alexander Semchenko, editor of a growing Soviet newspaper and publishing house called The Protestant.
“It’s not that Christians in the Soviet Union don’t have Bibles,” he said, speaking through a translator during a recent U.S. visit. “No matter what happened, no matter what the Communists did, Christians in my country held onto our Bibles. Christians would lose EVERYTHING, but they wouldn’t give up their Bibles. I remember my first Bible. I remember my first New Testament, as a boy. I kept them.
“Here is what is happening. Now we have many new Christians. So we need new Bibles.”
The Moscow Project involves a wide coalition of groups, led by the International Bible Society, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, Youth For Christ-International and The Protestant.
The first shipment of 1 million New Testaments arrived in Moscow in February. New shipments will arrive in the summer and fall, backed by traveling distribution teams of more than 250 musicians and missionaries from America and elsewhere. Soviet Christians from 18 different mission groups will take part.
Project leaders are now beginning to plan an event that would have been inconceivable a few years ago — a final rally and international gospel music festival in the Soviet Hall of Congress, inside the Kremlin walls.
Semchenko stressed that the current Soviet shortage of scriptures is a sign of growth and change. Many Catholic, evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are now sharing their faith openly, after years of worshipping in “underground” churches.
A new generation of Christian leadership is emerging in the Soviet Union. New churches and forms of ministry are being born — many with strong ties to Christians in America. These groups would be hard for politicians to crush, said Semchenko, who was jailed several times in the mid-1980s.
Such practical changes in Soviet life will almost certainly last, no matter what happens as Gorbachev struggles with the president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin.
It may not matter who wins in the halls of political power.
“Sometimes I think that the Communists all think that one church is the same as another,” he said, with an ironic smile. “They don’t know Baptist from Orthodox. For them, yoga is the same as Christianity, Mormon is the same as Baptist. Who knows what they think?”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 8/21/91.
Jeffrey Krump flipped through his thick notebook of photos from a rock ‘n’ roll research trip to Moscow in June.
A television set nearby offered news on this week’s political roller coaster in the Soviet Union.
Several photos showed the Gorky Park amphitheater, others a site for a stage near the famous McDonald’s restaurant, others the Kremlin. A seemingly endless series of technical photos showed electrical, lighting and audio equipment at each site.
Mixed throughout were photos of Soviet Christians who are now Krump’s friends.
Krump plans rock tours. Normally he works for Aerosmith, a band of hard-rock secular superstars. He has spent recent months helping the Moscow Project, an effort to use music to distribute 4 million New Testaments and Bibles in the Soviet Union.
This weekend, Krump is scheduled to take his pre-tour notebook back to Moscow, to prepare for a final blitz of concerts.
He may get there. He may not. His packing cases of musical equipment may make it. They may not. The Moscow Project concerts may go on as scheduled. They may not.
“Who knows? I think it’s worth going if we get to do three shows, instead of 14,” he said, at mid-week. “Maybe our big concerts get canceled. Maybe we end up in parks, carrying a guitar and a backpack of Bibles. … We’re supposed to be asking what it is that God wants to do. What is God’s agenda?
“We can’t worry about whether we’re a `success’ or a `failure.’ God’s in charge of all that.”
One of the final Moscow Project teams already is in Tallinn, Estonia, ready to perform a series of weekend concerts in that Baltic city’s Lenin Cultural Palace.
Other ensembles — including gospel star Larnelle Harris, a Korean choir and other such groups — are poised to enter the Soviet Union for concerts between Aug. 31 and Sept. 7. Krump is working with one group, the Denver-based Holy Smoke Band. I am scheduled to travel with this group, representing Denver Seminary.
Events linked to the Moscow Project are backed by Youth For Christ-International, the International Bible Society and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.
Travel cases containing three tons of Moscow Project musical equipment are waiting at Rock-It Cargo in Los Angeles, the nation’s biggest shipper of the expensive gear used by rock groups. Much of the equipment was donated or loaned to the project.
Krump realizes that it is currently bizarre to talk about a series of concerts “proceeding smoothly” in Moscow.
The Moscow Project was to have ended with a gospel music festival in the Soviet government’s Hall of Congress, inside the walls of the Kremlin. The concert was to take place on the same stage on which Yeltsin was inaugurated as president of the Soviet republic.
This week, Soviet evangelicals backing the Moscow Project have tried to learn the fate of that concert and a state dinner timed to coincide with it. The Kremlin hasn’t exactly been open for business as usual.
This isn’t Krump’s first brush with chaos. He handled an Aerosmith concert in Berlin on the day the Berlin Wall started coming down. He has worked with other bands that played concerts in cities with tanks parked in the streets.
“When you’re touring with a group like Aerosmith … you throw money at your problems until they go away,” said Krump. “Making money is what that kind of tour is all about. You spend money to make more money. Big deal. … But this tour doesn’t have anything to do with making money. It’s about getting a message across and helping our brothers and sisters in Soviet churches.
“This tour doesn’t succeed because of money. It succeeds in spite of money. … Maybe we can succeed in spite of everything.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 9/03/91.
MOSCOW — In the darkest hours of the Soviet coup, Father Alexander Borisov donned the attire of the Russian Orthodox priesthood and went to work.
He knew police would be intimidated by his flowing black-and-gold vestments. While others manned barricades on Aug. 20, Borisov and members of the 1-year-old Bible Society of the Soviet Union stalked tanks, carrying bundles of New Testaments.
If crews declined face-to-face talks, the priest climbed on board and pitched Bibles through the hatches. Borisov and his associates also circulated appeals by Russian president Boris Yeltsin, printed on Bible society equipment. They gave 2,000 New Testaments to soldiers and secret police.
“I will just describe what we did and we all know what has happened, here. People can draw their own conclusions,” said Borisov, who is known as the chaplain of the Moscow city council, to which he has been elected. “In my heart, I believed that soldiers with New Testaments in their pockets were not going to shoot their brothers and sisters.”
After the coup collapsed, Borisov and others chanted blessings at the bloody site where three men died. Now this area is an unofficial shrine covered with flowers and icons of Mary. On a nearby wall are Jesus’ words from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they did.”
“We all did the work that we had to do,” said Borisov, through a translator. “Very few people in this country would deny that it was God who did the best work on that night. … We have seen a miracle from God.”
Religious overtones in this revolution were hard to ignore.
Still, many were stunned when Father Gleb Yakunin, one of the nation’s most dynamic religious figures, preached an anti-coup sermon that might have sealed a death warrant. He also is a people’s deputy to the Russian parliament. Yakunin reminded 100,000 at an Aug. 20 Yeltsin rally that the coup shattered the Feast of the Transfiguration, a holy day marking a biblical event in which Jesus was revealed as divine.
Mighty acts of God often stir up demons, he explained. Now, eight devils were disrupting a holy day. But don’t worry — the eight coup leaders were fakes and God would send them back to hell. “God is with us. … Be patient,” proclaimed Yakunin, according to the notes of one person at the rally. “Russia will return to her roots.”
Borisov also was thinking about the symbols and mysticism of Russia’s past, as he went from tank to tank. That is why he included “Thou shalt not kill,” and a warning that God sees all, in a much-circulated protest letter that he wrote to be signed by Moscow’s mayor.
Events speed on. The revolution has slowed only slightly as what remains of the Soviet Union enters an autumn of cold rains, rusting barbed wire, sidewalks broken by demonstrators and fresh flowers heaped atop those that are fading.
Most of his countrymen are probably not true believers, Borisov said. Like Yeltsin, they were baptized as infants, “just in case the church is right.” Now they are learning that decades of official atheism have left them ignorant of their heritage.
Most know how little they know about what it means to believe, Borisov said. Yeltsin has said he thinks the nation has much to gain from the return of religious faith. Most of his disciples agree. Many displayed their faith at barricades.
Bible society workers have been telling the story of one soldier. In the early hours of Aug. 21, they offered him a large, colorful children’s Bible, since they were out of smaller New Testaments. The soldier realized he would need to hide it from his superiors, to take it home. But his uniform had only one pocket large enough.
The soldier hesitated, then emptied his ammunition pocket. He went on to the barricades with a Bible, instead of bullets.
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 9/11/91.
MOSCOW — Nothing in American church life can prepare someone for the experience of handing out Bibles in the Soviet Union.
Perhaps if an organization tried to give away $1,000 bills in the South Bronx, or certificates for free college tuition.
“You certainly couldn’t get Americans this fired up about Bibles,” said Gene Kissinger, an evangelical missions specialist who took part in this summer’s Moscow Project to distribute 4 million Bibles in the Soviet Union. “It’s impossible for us to understand how people over here have been denied Bibles. We can’t imagine what that would be like.”
It was a few hours after volunteers working with the Holy Smoke Band from Cherry Hills Community Church in Englewood, Colo., gave away about 2,500 New Testaments after a gospel-rock concert in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Kissinger is on the church’s staff and I took part in the tour as a representative of Denver Seminary.
The scene had teetered on the edge of chaos as men, women and children struggled to grab Bibles. Repeated announcements by Russian translators failed to convince the crowd that there were enough for everyone.
Each person waved their arms urgently, while trying to make eye contact with the Bible distributors on stage. Quickly, some began tripping over each other’s feet. Some were being trapped against the edge of the stage.
Crew members lifted several people to safety, while others rushed stacks of Bibles to the far side of the stage. This strategy solved the problem. But the experience left Moscow Project volunteers shaken and determined to improve their methods.
“People in Moscow churches told me it would be harder than I imagined to distribute Bibles over here. They told me over and over. But you just can’t imagine what this is like, until you see it,” said Jim Groen, chairman of Youth For Christ-International, a major Moscow Project partner.
Volunteers kept trying different tactics, right through the final concerts and events. The project ended with a spectacular gospel music festival, and Bible giveaway, in the Kremlin’s Palace of Congress.
The consensus: Spread out and keep moving, in an attempt to prevent mob scenes.
“We had a lot to learn. … You could sit in Central Park with a million Bibles and nobody would give you the time of day. No one would mob you, that’s for sure,” Kissinger said.
Actually, anyone attempting such a project in American public parks and facilities might be mobbed by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union.
What is the source of this Soviet hunger for Bibles? The reasons blend into a complex web of emotions and motivations. Obvious reasons include:
(1) Researchers believe that Communist officials allowed the legal printing of a mere 450,000 Bibles between 1917 and 1986, in a nation with a modern population of 266 million. While Bible imports increased under President Mikhail Gorbachev, it has been estimated that 100 million Bibles are needed to meet current demands.
(2) Previously forbidden books have a special appeal and create curiosity. Also, reformers such as Russian President Boris Yeltsin have begun showing public respect for their nation’s centuries of Christian traditions.
(3) Finally, Bibles and New Testaments are popular on the thriving black market, where brokers know more about rubles than religion. Many of those seeking free Bibles are clearly stashing scriptures to be sold to others. This is sad, but cannot be avoided, say Soviet Christian leaders.
“One thing is certain — our Bibles end up in the hands of people who want them,” said Father Basil Moksiakov, distribution manager for the Bible Society of the Soviet Union. “No one throws a Bibles away, because it is too valuable. … The more Bibles we print, the better.
“We cannot worry about the black market. We can only do what we must do — get Bibles to our people.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 9/18/91.
A white, blue and red Russian flag graces the walls above Lenin’s tomb.
It is becoming common to see people handing out Bibles in Red Square.
On Sept. 7, Soviet soldiers volunteered to unload a truck-load of New Testaments for free distribution after a gospel music festival in the Palace of Congress, the 6,500-seat hall used for meetings of the Supreme Soviet. Twenty days earlier, coup leaders held that same stage as they defended last-ditch efforts to save the Communist Party.
The gospel festival drew a near capacity crowd. At the altar call, half of those present stood as a public testimony that they wanted to become Christians.
Up is down and down is up.
Hours before the gospel concert, the head of the Palace of Congress’ security and maintenance staff approached the sponsors and asked if he could have 1,000 New Testaments. Why? He wanted to give a Bible to each member of his Kremlin staff. “What can I say? We are living in very unusual circumstances. But everything appears to part of God’s plan,” explained Pavel Nilou.
Recent events have yielded a procession of stunning sights and symbols. Who knows what will happen next. But religious changes in what remains of the Soviet Union continue to unfold. I believe several trends are obvious.
* Education issues are critical. Obviously, a new generation of leaders will need college and seminary training. Obviously, many families will want religious education and schools for their children. But another educational need should not be overlooked.
Religious groups in the Soviet Union will support political, economic and cultural reforms. But note this irony: For decades, those who openly proclaimed their faith faced bitter discrimination. They were denied access to higher education and the best jobs.
Do they have the degrees and training it will take to compete in the emerging marketplace? Can churches and other religious groups help these victims of discrimination catch up?
* Outside efforts to ship Bibles and other religious publications into the Soviet Union must continue. This summer’s nondenominational Moscow Project poured 4 million Russian-language Bibles and New Testaments into a scripture-starved land.
What comes next? Outside groups need to focus funds on the printing of religious materials inside the Soviet Union. These funds would support new religious publishing houses and institutions, as well as produce Bibles and other books.
Also, the Soviet Union includes many different languages and cultures. Next year, the International Bible Society is planning a “Soviet Southwest” project. The goal: 1.3 million New Testaments in Ukrainian and 500,000 in the language of the people of Georgia.
“We have at least touched Moscow and the major cities,” said the Rev. Paul Chandler, director of international ministries for the IBS. “But this is a land that is 10 time zones wide. There is more to this than the major cities. … We all know we’re just getting started.”
* Religious leaders in the Soviet Union want and need help from American organizations. But they also fear that they will be tied up in strings attached to this support. As soon as possible, American religious groups will want let emerging religious leaders in the Soviet Union take the reins.
Already, many Soviet Christians tell stories about Americans who seem to be more interested in publicity than in helping meet the practical needs of Soviet churches. Americans often show up to preach with video cameras, but no translators.
Yes, the pace of change has been dizzying.
It has been glorious and a bit intoxicating to dance on the grave of the Evil Empire and an oppressive atheism. In the future, Soviet religious leaders deserve sympathetic dancing partners who can follow, as well as lead.
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 1/01/92.
Floorboards creak and the carpets are worn thin in the spartan building that Baptists in Moscow call the “big church.”
But 1991 brought signs of new life to the Baptist Union, amid the evidence of decades of Communism. Scaffolds loomed over the sidewalks and front doors. Inside, zones of canvas helped church workers coexist with paint crews.
Yes, much of the money for these fix-up projects comes from American offering plates. Yes, cooperation with outside groups is responsible for stacks of new Russian Bibles. Yes, some of the volunteers and many of the visitors in the Baptist Union hallways only speak English.
“What is happening is symbolic, but real. Like glasnost and perestroika were symbolic, but real at the same time,” said the Rev. Alexei Bichkov, vice president of the Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.
Bichkov, 63, led the Baptist Union from 1971 to 1990. He was a liaison between the authorized church and the Soviet state in an era when secret police frequented the pews and it was illegal to preach to outsiders or to teach children about the faith.
Now Bichkov can distribute free Bibles in Red Square. The fax machine down the hall brings in a stream of news about chances to work with Christians around the world. The shelf behind his desk holds almost as many books in English as in Russian, including copies of the American Journal of Church and State.
Fresh paint will be common for years to come.
“It is a symbolic time. We need to make changes, because our building is not so attractive. We need people to see that we are improving ourselves, that we are growing and becoming healthy,” said Bichkov, speaking English in an interview last September.
He shrugged his shoulders and added: “Besides, the (Russian) Orthodox have 100 new churches and their churches are so beautiful. Others must keep up.”
Christians in what was the Soviet Union face growth pains and some old tensions.
On Oct. 1, 1990, the Soviet government passed a ground-breaking Law on Religious Freedom. But the new-born Commonwealth of Independent States hasn’t taken a similar step. Its accord guarantees freedom of conscience. But it also contains a clause that allows for the “manifestation, preservation and development of ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious distinctions of national minorities” in the member states.
Does this language protect the rights of minorities? Or is it a window to official, state-recognized churches?
In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin has promised religious freedom. But he also has focused most of his public attention on the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ethnic and religious tensions have caused tension and even bloodshed in the Ukraine, Georgia and other states.
All of this worries Bichkov and many others.
“We rejoice about much that has happened. … But this also is a very painful time for some of us. The Orthodox Church is so dominant,” he said. “The Communist Party only acknowledged that the Russian Orthodox existed, most of the time. Now we see some of our new heroes and government leaders bow to the Orthodox hierarchy.
“This parade, this spectacle, causes great pain for many Protestants. Even some Orthodox leaders — especially among the young, more independent priests — fear what may happen after these kinds of scenes.”
His bottom line: Americans and western religious leaders must seek out the new government officials in the commonwealth and stress the importance of religious liberty for all.
“God forbid that the Russian Orthodox again become the all-powerful state church,” Bichkov said. “That would cause great pain. … Many people, including some priests, believe it would also be a disaster for a revitalized Orthodox church. It is always dangerous for the church to marry the state.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 4/29/92.
Tom Eggum made his first Moscow trip in 1973, his suitcase lined with illegal scriptures and his heart set on telling young people about Jesus.
Thirty trips later, the Lutheran evangelist has probably preached to as many Soviet teens as any American. It may come as a surprise that he is both overjoyed and terrified by the changes he sees there.
Eggum never thought he would win converts on the steps of schools that were once temples to atheism. But he also never thought he would see Soviet kids slumped in front of TVs watching heavy-metal rock videos.
For years, he prayed that Russia would enjoy the freedoms of the West. This is taking place, for better and for worse.
“We have 1 to 2 years — at the most — to reach these young people, especially in the big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their hearts will only stay open for so long,” predicted Eggum, in an interview last fall in Moscow, shortly after the failed coup.
As he talked, Eggum watched a group of young people gathered around a guitar player outside the Russian parliament building. Two wore T-shirts promoting American rock bands.
“Everything is changing. You can see it in the kids’ clothes and their hair and the look in their eyes. We may have only 2 years before we see drugs, sex and depression to the degree that we do in the United States. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
In recent months, Eggum has made two more trips to the Commonwealth of Independent States. He’ll go back in June and in the fall he’ll join in the “Volga Mission,” an effort to blend evangelism, education and medical work during a boat tour of cities along the Volga River.
When he isn’t on an airplane, Eggum helps lead the missions programs of the Community Church of Joy, a booming Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation outside Phoenix.
“My family and my church know that I have been totally won over by the Russian people,” said the 40-year-old evangelist. “I was committed to making Russia my life’s work even before the coup. … I can’t stop now.”
After 1973, Eggum traveled to the Soviet Union every year until 1981, when he was arrested during a crackdown on outsiders. It was a time strained by the war in Afghanistan, the growth of the Solidarity union in Poland and the U.S. grain boycott.
Restrictions eased in 1986. Since then, Eggum has given up trying to predict the rate at which change will occur in Russia.
In January, Moscow was gloomy and depressed. Shelves were empty and the people seemed stunned. By April, the mood had improved. Long-time friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg told him that prices remained high. But supplies of food and other commercial items seemed to be on the rebound.
If anything, Eggum said, the cultural changes are gaining momentum.
Time is too short for U.S. churches to quibble over what denominations and what missions groups get credit for what miracles in what used to be Communist territory, he said.
There is little time for American evangelicals to debate whether the Gospel and rock ‘n’ roll music can mix, he said. Popular music, video and other forms of media are tools the church must use to reach young people in what used to be the Soviet Union.
“I’m afraid that our American brand of materialism is going to steal their hearts,” said Eggum. “The stakes are too high. … It’s the cost of freedom, pure and simple.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 2/17/93.
It was 1 a.m., Moscow time, and one of South Korea’s best known evangelists was picking at a late supper after one of his most memorable altar calls.
The Rev. Billy Kim had just preached to a full house in the Kremlin’s 6,500-seat Palace of Congress. Only 20 days earlier, Soviet coup leaders held the same stage in a last-ditch effort to save the Communist system. After Kim’s sermon, half of those attending the Sept. 7, 1991, gospel music festival decided to become Christians.
Hours later, the evangelist gazed out a hotel window at the Russian Federation Parliament building.
“If someone had told me, a year ago, that I would be sitting where I am sitting, I would have said they were crazy,” said the soft-spoken Kim, who becomes a fiery orator in the pulpit. “If someone had told me that I would preach in the Kremlin. …”
His voice faded, then he added: “I cannot help but think: where will I be next year? Where will I be 10 years from now? What will God do next?”
Amid the tumult of Moscow, it impossible not to think about North Korea.
Every South Korean church prays for reunification during every service, as well as for the safety of Christians who remain in hiding in North Korea.
“At least half of the members of my church have family in the north,” said Kim, pastor of the 10,000-member Suwon Baptist Church just outside Seoul. “In every service, I see people weeping as they pray that, someday, they will see their loved ones again.”
It has been 18 months since that night in Moscow, and Kim continues to watch the world change, while praying that walls will fall in one of the last remaining bastions of Communism.
Once it was estimated that Christians made up 75 percent of the population of Pyongyang, now North Korea’s capital. Today, there are three government-controlled churches — two Protestant and one Catholic — in a nation of 21 million people.
“There must be older people who still believe,” said the 58-year-old Kim, during a recent U.S. speaking tour. “You hear it said that there are as many as 300 churches meeting in secret. But we have no way to know. … Someday, the border will open and people will start churches again — everywhere.”
Kim said he has seen three recent signs of hope.
* In many troubled nations, the Rev. Billy Graham has been a key figure in opening doors for other missionaries. Last April, Graham visited North Korea and met with President Kim Il Sung, the nation’s dictator for nearly half a century, and also delivered a message from Pope John Paul II. Later, Graham said: “The door has been slightly opened and others may follow in the months and years ahead.”
* A team of U.S. musicians, backed by churches and mission groups, has been invited to take part in North Korea’s annual youth festival in Pyongyang. This group, visiting during the Easter season, may be able to meet with church leaders and discuss future aid projects.
* In the late 1980s, North Korea passed a law requiring all homes to have radios. The government controls all programming, but group’s such as Kim’s Far East Broadcast company beam programs to the north. Recently, Kim opened a gospel station in Russia. Once a jamming station, it has a strategic location 150 miles on the other side of North Korea.
“Doors may open soon, to some degree, for groups from the United States and elsewhere,” said Kim. “I do not know what kind of ministries will be allowed, but (the North Koreans) appear to want help and charity work from the outside.”
Kim knows that South Korean church leaders are not welcome.
“Not me, not now, not until there is a complete reunification,” he said. “Until that day, we must continue to preach family unity. It is not God’s intention for families to be divided by political systems, oppression and greed. We long for hearts to be reunited. That day will come.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 7/21/93.
As our taxi bounced through Moscow back streets, the Russian Orthodox priest explained why a new era of freedom meant that religious conflicts were just around the corner.
It was two weeks after the failed 1991 coup and Father Alexander Borisov was on his way to speak to American Protestants who were backing the publication of Russian-language bibles.
Already, reports were circulating about well-funded foreigners practicing “pocketbook evangelism,” or more subtle forms of cash for conversion. Already, many feared that the Russian Orthodox hierarchy would respond by trying to lock out missionaries.
Speaking through a translator, Borisov said new communication channels must be opened, or conflict would escalate.
“I want Americans to understand that some of us in the (Russian Orthodox) Church will talk to them and greet them as Christian brothers and sisters,” said Borisov, who was the unofficial chaplain to the Moscow City Council at the time of the coup. “We must pray together, not compete with each other. … We must learn to understand each other, or we will miss a great opportunity.”
Two years later, Borisov’s fears have become reality.
Some Russian lawmakers want to stop the waves of missionaries. Many fear that legislation passed on July 14 may be part of an effort to muzzle Protestants and Catholics, while granting a virtual religious monopoly to the Russian Orthodox.
Few would deny that problems exist. But thousands of projects begun in recent years — even those legally registered with the Russian government — would be shut down during a mysterious 1-year “accreditation” process. For example, a mission group could be banned if its work does not further the “interests of the state and social concord.”
Many Orthodox leaders envy the success of missionaries and consider them poachers.
“We should just ban them, stop them, that’s all,” Metropolitan Ioann of St. Petersburg told the New York Times. “They are trying to implant the capitalist psychology and set as their primary goal the almighty dollar.”
But a few Orthodox leaders have attacked proposed changes in the 1990 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which ushered in a new era of religious freedom.
The proposed change is, in fact, discriminatory and “aimed at creating favorable conditions for the Moscow Patriarchate, which is using its lobby in the Supreme Soviet to muzzle all competing organizations,” said a statement released by Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and Russian parliament member.
On the Protestant side, some mission groups have cooperated with Russian authorities. But some have not.
As of June, 50 foreign religious groups had registered with the government, according to a statement by an aide to President Boris Yeltsin. But more than 1,000 groups are working in Russia. Also, some missionaries continue to preach that Russians must leave the Orthodox fold, or face eternal consequences.
Religious freedom can be messy. But the alternatives are worse. Conflicts will continue whether Yeltsin signs this legislation or not.
Back in 1991, Borisov explained that a few Orthodox clergy quickly decided to cooperate with some missionaries. But others said it would be wrong to do so, because that might undercut Orthodoxy’s position as the unchallenged national faith.
Obviously, foreign groups have much to offer in terms of financial aid and expertise in evangelism, youth work, media and Christian education, Borisov said.
“Somehow, we must find more Americans who are willing to work with us and who recognize the symbolic role that Russian Orthodoxy has played in this culture,” he said. “But we also must find more Orthodox leaders who realize that we cannot return to the past. We must learn to work with others. … Our nation has changed and it will change even more in the future. We cannot stop this.”
The taxi veered onto a main street and approached the Kremlin. I motioned to Borisov, noting a Hare Krishna missionary working at the next traffic light.
Borisov nodded and said, “Things have changed. Some of us may have trouble getting used to freedom.”