For more than ten years Russian authorities paid little attention to the influence of Western missionary organizations and evangelists. But since 2001 a campaign aimed at expelling missionaries from Russia has accelerated. While a few of those expelled are Roman Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, and even Buddhist, most are staff workers of Evangelical church unions and Western missionary organizations.
Allegations against Missionaries
For example, at the end of November 2003 authorities issued an ultimatum to Takhir Talipov, a missionary from Latvia who had led the Baptist denomination in Tatarstan since the beginning of the 1990s. Authorities alleged that Talipov’s worldview and church activities “do not conform to the interests of the country, bear an extremist nature, and present a threat to interconfessional and ethnic stability.” Moreover, by expelling denominational leaders, the authorities cast a pall over Baptists and Pentecostals who live in Russia and actually are Russian citizens.
The vast expansion of Protestantism in Russia in the 1990s included its penetration into social and cultural spheres that were often overlooked by bureaucrats and representatives of traditional churches. Authorities could not directly limit the activities of Protestant churches because they were legally registered and many had existed in Russia for more then ten years. That is why, with the advent of the strengthening of central authority under Putin, the KGB, renamed the Federal Security Service (FSB), took control of regulating missionary activities all over Russia. This is according to the statements of Russian authorities and Protestants themselves. State security organizations officially explain that missionaries are involved in, or potentially may be involved in, “extremist activities.” By deporting foreigners who are said to be advocates of Western culture and dangerous religions, the FSB postures before the public as the defender of patriotic values. In its anti-missionary actions, it does not face any protests from society. Nor does the FSB encounter protests from Evangelical believers or from missionaries themselves. Anti-missionary politics consists of clearing Russia of real or imaginary enemies without ever firing a shot. In contrast, such a “victory” is not possible in the struggle against corruption or in battles against Chechen rebels.
Western missionaries deported from Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Adygeia, and the Altay Region have adapted their preaching and the life of the church to accommodate national aspirations, customs, and traditions. Protestant missions have been trying to overcome the common Tatar or Adyg stereotype that conversion means accepting some kind of foreign religion that uproots national traditions. It is important to point out that Protestant missionary activities among Russia’s ethnic minorities are being conducted in a secular society in which only a small portion of the population actively practices Islam, Buddhism, or Shamanism. In this situation, the attention Protestants have paid to local history, national epics, native languages, and traditional customs has led indigenous people to trust missionaries. In Evangelical churches, which have made national dress, melodies, and musical instruments a part of worship, new converts have discovered not only faith, but also have rediscovered elements of their national culture.
In 2002 authorities refused to renew the visa of Paul Kim, a U.S. citizen. This Korean-American is the founder of an indigenous Kalmyk church belonging to the Evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance (Evangel’skii khristianskii missionerskii soyuz). According to Kalmyk church members in Elista, Kim had had a successful ministry among them because this Asian missionary related well to Asian Kalmyks. He had shared with them his religious experience in South Korea of discovering God and becoming a Christian from a Buddhist background. Young Kalmyk pastor Dzhanga Dagayeva has shared that Kim, in his preaching, respected Buddhist culture. Kim’s position was that Buddha was a good man and philosopher, but that he never claimed he was God. In this way, Kalmyk Buddhism could be seen to pave the way for Christianity.
Outreach to Adygei and Altay
Russia deported Swedish missionary-evangelist Leo Martenson of Light in the East (Licht im Osten) mission in fall 2002. He worked in Adygeia and Krasnodar, planting Adygei churches and translating the New Testament into the Adygei language. As early as 1997, FSB officers regarded such activities as ideologically provocative and forcefully demanded that Semyon Borodin, head of the Evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance (ECMA), stop such evangelism among the Adygei. But in spite of these restrictions, ECMA continues its ministry among the indigenous population. Alexander Korneev, pastor of the Maikop ECMA Church, thinks that today, in the absence of strong local Islamic traditions, Adygei need to rediscover their fifteenth-century Christian roots.
In Barnaul and Gorno-Altaysk in Siberia, American church planter Gregory Clark and his wife have sought to preserve the local culture. In the Gorno-Altaysk Pentecostal church which they founded, the majority of members are of Altay nationality. Praise and worship at every worship service are in both Russian and Altay. In cell group meetings in believers’ homes, Christians worship, sing, and fellowship in their native languages. Worship services employ Altay national instruments (tapshur, ikli, and kamus). Church members also compose Christian songs in the Altay language and perform these numbers with the help of the same traditional guttural singing (oyrots) that has been used to pass down Altay heroic epics for generations. The desire of the Clarks to respect Altay culture extended to supporting village believers’ tradition of not building fences between homes, offering tea to every stranger, respecting the elderly, and preserving good relationships among relatives in Altay clans. Nevertheless, in spring 2003 Russian authorities denied Gregory Clark a visa renewal, leaving the church in Gorno-Altaysk without a pastor. The Ministry of Domestic Affairs (MVD) and the Gorno-Altaysk Office of General Prosecutor explained to members of the church that federal authorities had their own reasons for denying visas to foreign missionaries.
Outreach to Tatars
At the beginning of the 1990s Takhir Talipov, a Tatar from Latvia, planted an independent church of Evangelical Christians that to date has spawned five more of the same type in Tatarstan. Pastors from Talipov’s church are supervising a new translation of the Bible into the Tatar language. Worship services in the national language are being conducted in practically all large Protestant churches of the republic: in the Cornerstone (Kraeugol’nogo kamnya) Christian Charismatic Church, headed by Pastor Roman Usachev; in Ebenezer Church in Naberezhnye Chelny, the largest Pentecostal congregation in Tatarstan; and also in the Church of Christ, which belongs to the Charismatic movement of the International Calvary Church. All these churches, whose membership totals more than 1,500 in Kazan only, attract significant numbers of Russian and Tatar intelligentsia. Since the end of the1990s there has been a tendency toward mass conversions of Tatars to Protestantism and the formation of some new Tatar Christian churches.
Charity work with social institutions is another very important area of ministry for Protestant Christian outreach to indigenous peoples. Anti-alcohol and anti-drug ministries and assistance to children, the poor, the elderly, and the sick characterize every Evangelical community. Protestant pastors, preachers, and bishops not only offer occasional assistance, but practice a unique theology of social ministry that obligates every Christian to help those in need. The church in Maikop, for example, is ministering to handicapped children and offers help to hospitals and orphanages. It also collects clothes for Chechen refugees. In the Altay Region believers have developed a network of rehabilitation centers for drug addicts, while missionaries serving in mountain villages are offering help to Altay people who want to free themselves from the bondage of alcoholism. In Kalmykia, rock concerts against drugs have been organized. Moreover, the Evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance Church in Elista organizes seminars for physicians, computer scientists, and business people.
At the same time, more and more secular authorities disapprove of Protestant social, political, and economic tendencies. Protestants teach new converts to respect democratic values and the rights and freedoms of the individual. Evangelicals, historically associated with the “Protestant work ethic,” support the growth of a liberal market economy. As a result, most Protestants vote in elections for parties that support a democratic platform, such as Yabloko and Soyuz Pravyh Sil (Union of Right Forces), but are suspicious of Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia), which has the backing of state functionaries.
Protestant Growth among Minorities
Missionary deportations have not been a catastrophic event for Russia’s Evangelical churches. Nor have the punitive actions of authorities, often conducted behind believers’ backs, destroyed the holistic worldview of these believers. Many churches founded in the 1990s, overcoming many obstacles, now occupy certain niches in society and are no longer a marginal force in Russian life. The situation regarding Tatar and Kalmyk Protestants, as well as Adygeia and Altay Evangelicals, shows that they already play a significant role in the religious and cultural self-identification of various indigenous nationalities. Tatar, Kalmyk, Adyg, and Altay pastors no longer are rarities, while Evangelical churches support themselves through the practice of tithing. Foreign help plays a role only occasionally, as in cases of church construction or large-scale humanitarian aid projects.
Missionary churches now represent a real social and cultural force among indigenous people groups in Russia. They preach the ideals of a healthy and prosperous society. Muslim authorities in Tatarstan are much more intolerant of Tatar conversions to Protestantism than to Orthodoxy. At the same time, Orthodox hierarchs and Muslim myftiyat express growing anger over Tatar conversions to Evangelical faith. Local authorities feel increasing pressure to limit Protestant activities that Orthodox and Muslims define as proselytism. More and more, one can hear angry voices of Kalmyk nationalists who regard Kalmyk Evangelicals as traitors. In the Altay Region, missionaries, especially those serving in remote villages, face powerful resistance from Shamanists, who proclaim the “indigenous faith” of Oyrots.
Foreign missionaries and their Russian and ethnic minority disciples have successfully organized indigenous congregations. Contrary to the popular, pro-Orthodox opinion that foreign evangelists denigrate or downplay native culture, many coming from the United States and Scandinavian countries leave behind strong and independent local churches. These congregations reflect an understanding of their context, including the cultural history and spiritual sensitivities of their flock. The planning and growth of churches in Russia’s national republics in particular have succeeded because of the positive personal qualities of Western evangelists and their effectiveness as church leaders. In contrast to those missionaries of the early 1990s who acted less cautiously and who often rigidly swept away anything that hindered their work, more sensitive foreign workers since then have respected indigenous cultures and have made a place for elements of local customs and traditions in worship and missionary work. The displeasure of traditional churches towards Protestants, whether the latter proceed in a culturally sensitive manner or not, comes as no surprise. However, that Protestants, unlike most Orthodox believers, strongly support the development of democracy in Russia is less well known. Thus, while Orthodox opposition to Protestants may stem from a majority faith’s yearning for a return to its previous monopolistic state-church status, the opposition of authoritarian-minded state officials to Protestants may stem from Protestant preference for a democratic outcome to Russia’s present floundering for a new way forward.
Roman Lunkin is a research fellow of the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. He also is on the research staff for Keston Institute’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of Contemporary Religious Life in Russia.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report