Russia's Baptists Want Same Rights as Orthodox Church

MOSCOW—Russia's Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists—the country's biggest Protestant denomination—has called on its members to promote further growth of the denomination and also demanded that Russian authorities give it the same respect as the nation's dominant Russian Orthodox Church.

The union's 30th congress, held in Moscow March 17-20, also called for peace between Russia's Churches. They stressed the Russian history of their evangelical faith, and rejected the common perception that Russian Baptists belong to a “foreign” religion.

The congress brought together 374 delegates and more than 200 guests, most of them Baptist pastors, at a hotel in the southwest of the Russian capital, under the theme “Thy Kingdom Come.”

Interest at the congress was focused on reactions to Russia's new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which many people believe discriminates against the country's minority Churches.

But Pastor Pyotr Konovalchik, who was re-elected as the union's president during the congress, said the law was not aimed at Russian Baptist Churches and did not infringe their freedom.

“We do not see how we can be persecuted on the basis of this law,” he said. However, he added that much would depend on the practice of re-registration of the communities, which was required by the new law.

The congress emphasized mission and evangelism as the backbone of the Church's activities.

“We should be more open to all of society, reach out to mass media, enter into contacts with all groups of population,” the message from the congress to Russia's Baptist communities declared, adding that Baptists should “be neither ashamed of our name, nor consider ourselves superior to other confessions, but through our love and kind Christian behavior lead people to understand that the Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists are indeed part of God's Kingdom on earth.”

Baptists are often seen by Russian nationalists—both within and outside the Russian Orthodox Church—as a sect. Although the Church's Moscow Patriarchate maintains official contacts with the union, many Orthodox priests and lay activists are highly critical of Baptists.

In a message to President Boris Yeltsin, the union's pastors declared their loyalty to him and to Russia, but complained of discrimination. They said they were “profoundly saddened” by the violation by local authorities of the rights of freedom of conscience and of Church equality before the law. The pastors referred to the fact that they had been refused time on television and radio, as well as places for worship. Russian authorities had also refused to return to the Churches the ownership of houses of worship in several Russian cities.

Pastor Pyotr Stebakov, a delegate from the city of Oryol in southern Russia, told the congress that in his city the Orthodox Church was trying to restrict the work of the Baptists. Last year, he said, Oryol's Baptists had planned an “evangelization” of the city. A Moscow-based American missionary, Victor Gamm, was to have preached in the city center, but when the local Orthodox bishop protested the mayor refused permission.

Konovalchik said the union now had 1,250 Churches with a total membership of about 85,000 adults. In proportion to the population there are more Baptists in Siberia than in European Russia. In comparison, the Russian Orthodox Church has about 8,000 parishes with tens of millions of members.

According to Konovalchik, between 7,000 and 9,000 are baptized in Baptist Churches every year. (ENI)