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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protestants Team Up to Get Stronger Voice

The heads of Russia's largest Protestant denominations -- the Baptists, Pentecostalists and Seventh-day Adventists -- have united for the first time to form a body aimed at giving the country's second-largest but often neglected Christian confession a common voice to present to the government and public.

Given the high sensitivity of inter-church issues between the three denominations, the organizers of the new group, which is to be called the Consultative Council of the Heads of Protestant Unions, have defined it as much by what it is not as by what it is.

"It is not a legal unification of all Russian religious organizations, it is not a union on a doctrinal basis [seeking a union in faith]," Vasily Stolyar, head of the Seventh-day Adventists' West Russian Union Conference, said Monday in a telephone interview. "We do not intend to play an active role in politics. But we are planning to improve cooperation in social projects, such as customs clearance of foreign humanitarian aid and coordination of our position in the field of religious freedom."

Along with Stolyar, the council, which was formed last week, is made up of Pyotr Konovalchik, president of the All-Russian Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, and the heads of two Pentecostal umbrella organizations, Sergei Ryakhovsky and Pavel Okara. Together, they represent more than 1 million active Russian Protestants, Konovolchik's deputy, Yury Sipko, said Monday.

The council, which plans to meet on a monthly basis and is open to other Protestant groups that would like to join, is formed at a time when the government has created a working group to develop amendments to the 1997 law on religious organizations. The law, which was criticized by religious minorities at the time of its adoption, has been curtailed to a large degree by the Constitutional Court and has failed to satisfy both liberals and conservatives who are seeking to change it.

"The law is imperfect and more work on it is being done now," Stolyar said. "Sometimes, our voice is not heard."

Another reason for forming the council is the need to speak authoritatively on behalf of traditional Russian Protestants -- a prerogative sometimes taken by churches imported in recent years by Western missionaries. "New groups that have emerged on the wave of freedom sometimes speak on behalf of Protestants, whom they do not represent," Sipko said.

The council's first move -- announced at last week's news conference -- was to condemn a bill proposed by State Duma Deputy Alexander Chuyev that differentiates between "traditional" and "non-traditional" churches.

"We think that it would create a division in society," Stolyar said. "Russia is a secular society and it should not be divided among those who are presumably better and worse believers."