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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Baptists Unworried by Religion Law

Baptist pastors, in Moscow this week for their congress, declared themselves unfazed by a controversial law on religion that critics had warned would restrict the activities of so-called minority faiths in Russia.

The law, signed by President Boris Yeltsin in September last year, gives special protected status to religious groups that have been in Russia for more than 15 years.

But at the 30th Congress of Russia's Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists in southwest Moscow, the law was not even on the agenda for discussion.

Pastor Pyotr Konovalchik, who was re-elected Thursday as president of the union, said the measure would not inhibit the Baptist faith. "It is not directed against our churches and does not infringe on our freedom," he said. "We do not see that we can be persecuted on the basis of this law."

He added, though, that the impact of the law still depended on the process of re-registering religious communities -- demanded by the legislation -- which has yet to get under way.

The congress did touch on the law briefly; delegates introduced amendments to the union's charter to bring it into line with the new law. But Konovalchik said the changes were of a technical nature only.

Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in Russia, with a total adult membership of about 85,000 people, Konovalchik said. The union does not include some 30,000 Baptists who belong to splinter Baptist groups.

Russian nationalists often label Baptists as a "foreign sect." Recent years have seen an influx of foreign Baptist missionaries into the country. However, Russian Baptists claim a rich indigenous tradition.

Evangelicalism in Russia traces its origins as far back as 1867, when a merchant was baptized in Tiflis by a German pastor. Its first adherents came from Russian non-Orthodox sectarians, such as Molokans, and Russian German Lutherans.

Among the St. Petersburg aristocracy, the Baptist faith was spread by English preacher Lord Grenville Redstock. In 1884, Count Vasily Pashkov and his fellow aristocratic evangelicalssponsored the first congress of Russian Evangelical Christians.

Although they initially welcomed the 1917 Revolution, hoping that it would bring an end to the persecution they had suffered under the tsar, they discovered by the end of the 1920s that Baptists were subjected to the same repression as other religious groups. In 1944, the Soviet authorities sanctioned the congress, which united Russian Baptists and evangelical Christians to form the union.

Konovalchik acknowledged that his church is dependent on financial support from Baptist churches abroad. Indeed, many Baptist clerics emigrate to the United States for economic reasons.

But he was at pains to distinguish Russian Baptists from other minority faiths that have arrived in Russia more recently and are specifically targeted by the law on religion.

"Many pseudo-church organizations, from Moonies to Mormons to Jehovah's Witnesses, which are not traditional for Russia, are now here," Konovalchik said. "We are saddened by this."

Delegates at this week's congress did, though, report cases of discrimination. Pastor Pyotr Stebakov, a delegate from Oryol in southern Russia, said that in his city the Orthodox Church obstructs Baptist activities.

Last year, Stebakov said, Oryol Baptists planned to organize an "evangelization" in the city. A Moscow-based U.S. missionary, Victor Gamm, was to preach from a podium in the city center. But Oryol's mayor refused permission for the event when the local Orthodox diocese protested.

"Everybody is equal before the law -- us as well as them," Stebakov said. "Why do we need to receive their agreement?"