East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 2005, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Contemporary Religious Life on Sakhalin Island

Natalia Potapova

Editor’s Note: The first half of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 13 (Spring 2005): 5-6.

The revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia as a whole, as well as on Sakhalin, is taking place in the midst of the active spread of doctrines that appeared during the 1990s wave of missionary activity. The majority of missionaries in Russia are representatives of Protestant churches, conquering territory in the Far East, and supplanting Orthodoxy. On Sakhalin, just as in neighboring Far Eastern territories, the 1990s created a situation in which Protestants are in the vast majority, both in number of churches and number of overall active adherents. In 2003 the majority of religious organizations active in the region (71 of 121) are Protestant, and according to official data, they have more than 3,000 parishioners.

Christians of Evangelical Faith - Pentecostal
Christians of Evangelical Faith - Pentecostal (KhVE) is the largest and strongest Protestant movement on Sakhalin, exhibiting steady growth throughout the period of investigation (1990-2003). The Sakhalin Regional Association of Churches of Christians of Evangelical Faith of the Union of KhVE-Pentecostals in Russia, founded in 1997, is led by Bishop P.M. Yarmoliuk. This is an interdenominational association, to which belong Christians of Evangelical Faith, Evangelical Christians, Presbyterians, and Methodists. Their association with a central organization allowed them to reregister under the terms of the 1997 federal law on religion. All churches that joined the association then registered with the Department of Justice as Christians of Evangelical Faith - Pentecostals. The majority of them had been founded by missionaries from South Korea or the United States. In 2002, one non-registered Pentecostal church, the 20-member Victory Chapel pastored by American missionary L.P. Dominges, was also active in the regional capital, having officially informed the city authorities of its religious activity. Churches of Russian origin also continue to function, several of which were founded by families who arrived on the island in 1975 and achieved registration in the mid-1980s. Currently there are 65 organizations on Sakhalin under the KhVE-Pentecostal umbrella, with 46 clergy, the majority of whom are ordained pastors with some theological training. Conferences are held for pastors four times per year, and they have a Bible school. In addition, they have regular contact with missionaries: in 2001, 43 missionaries visited them (of 67 missionaries visiting Sakhalin overall). In August 2003 alone, Pentecostals received missionaries from the United States, South Korea, and Bulgaria. (Translator’s Note: No Western missionaries are known to reside on Sakhalin today. Most missionaries are Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Korean.)

Contemporary Worship and Charity
The rapid growth of Pentecostal churches is evident in all regions of Russia and is generally attributed to their dynamic, contemporary style of worship. Both registered and unregistered Pentecostal churches influence society through their active missionary work and church planting, that often is oriented toward youth. They also are extremely active in charity work. As early as 1994, a foreign missionary undertook an unprecedented journey throughout the island distributing five truckloads of humanitarian aid. Thanks to the active missionary efforts of P.M. Yarmoliuk, whose first trip was in 1999, even the most remote and forgotten settlements are no longer deprived of the gospel. Missionary activity and active social outreach—such as aid to street children and programs for “difficult” children— attract the attention of the population. For example, a pastor, who is also a professor of agricultural sciences, has been teaching children not only the Bible, but basic agronomy. A non-registered church has a puppet theater which performs at orphanages and homes for the aged throughout the island. An interdenominational organization works with prisoners and their families.

“Voice of Hope” Church
The internal dynamics of the development of Pentecostal churches on Sakhalin can be traced to two churches—one “old” church founded during Soviet times, and a “new” one founded by foreign missionaries in the 1990s. The Church “Voice of Hope” of the Christians of Evangelical Faith was the first Pentecostal organization in the region, already registered in 1985. It has had a single pastor, who arrived from (what was then) Belorussia in 1975, and used its own means to build a House of Prayer on the outskirts of town between 1989 and 1993, despite the fact that the majority of parishioners live in the city. According to the pastor, in 2003, the church had 96 members, with an average of 46 at a Sunday service, primarily elderly women, as well as ten children. All are Slavic, with the exception of one young woman of Korean heritage. According to the pastor, their unregistered satellite parish in another town has 30 parishioners.

In contrast, the most active and fastest growing church in the KhVE-Pentecostal Union is the Church “Blagodat,” of “Grace” Mission, which predicted the end of the world in 1992. Their founder is an American missionary (originally from South Korea), who arrived in Russia in 1991 and has since obtained Russian citizenship. According to the pastor, his church had eight members in 1992 and 300 in 1998, of which 50 percent were youth. In 1998, 60 percent of the members were Russian, while the rest were Korean. Typical sermon topics in the mid-1990s were the alcoholism of the Russian people and a call to “make Sakhalin a blossoming garden.” Construction of a church building began in 1998 and was completed in 2000. By August 2003, the church had approximately 600 members. “Blagodat” is a cell or network church; for example, the church planned during 2003 to grow to 1,500 members meeting in 100 cell groups. There were at least 300 people at a Sunday service in 2003, 70 percent of whom were Korean.

It is interesting to note that those parishioners over 60 years old were exclusively Russian women (no more than 15 people), while the majority were Koreans between the ages of 30 and 50. The church is growing quickly—100 people were baptized in the first half of 2003 alone. A typical sermon in 2003 was about the need to live modestly in order to give more to the church. A common prayer is for God to bless their businesses. The church applies a strategy common among American and Korean missionaries— that of planting new churches in order to attract newcomers to the confession—with 17 registered affiliated churches in 2003, only three of which have an ordained pastor (the rest have lay preachers). As with other churches of the KhVE, parishioners are attracted by extensive charity work including soup kitchens, distribution of free Bibles, the organization of agricultural work for the unemployed, medical services, etc. New churches such as “Blagodat,” therefore, grow dynamically, while the congregations of older churches tend to age and to “feminize,” lacking active social outreach.

Other Churches and Faiths
In addition to Pentecostals and Orthodox, Sakhalin is also home to smaller numbers of Presbyterians, Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, the New Apostolic Church, Bahai, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In 2002, an Orthodox Jewish organization was registered with ten members, as was a Muslim congregation, also with ten believers. At present, 121 religious organizations are registered on Sakhalin according to the federal law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association.” The overwhelming majority of these appeared due to the efforts of foreign missionaries. There are also non-registered organizations that have informed the Department of Justice of their presence. Religious organizations also exist which have not informed the Department of Justice of their presence, but have instead registered and operate as commercial or social organizations.

Orthodox Difficulties
The traditional Russian Orthodox Church, which appeared on the island at the same time as other religions under conditions of complete freedom granted in early 1990s legislation, was unable to compete with other confessions—above all, Protestants—in attracting parishioners. Reasons included limited missionary and charitable activity, fees charged for rituals, the incomprehensible language of its liturgy, the shortage of qualified priests, the lack of elderly Sakhalin residents of Orthodox heritage, the longstanding secularism of the population, and the border location. Nonetheless, the authority of Orthodoxy as the traditional spiritual and ideological foundation of Russian society is great. Regional authorities give unconditional preference to Orthodoxy, resulting at times in the infringement on the rights of other confessions.

Retrenchment Among “Old” Protestants and New Religious Movements
Also evident is the gradual extinction of “old” Protestant religious organizations of Russian heritage, which existed legally in the Soviet era, such as Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Seventh-day Adventists, who also proved unable to compete with new, modernized churches in attracting new members. Overall, the religious situation on the island has stabilized. And as the period of religious aggressiveness has passed, the activities of exotic, foreign religious traditions common in the early 1990s (Bahai, Krishna) are also weakening. The rapid increase in the number of religious organizations has ended, and the number of missionary initiatives and the percent of the population considering themselves believers has stabilized. Confessions are becoming equal partners with the authorities in facing critical social issues— above all, the spiritual education of society and the solving of important social problems, such as aid to the poor, the elderly, and orphans.

Adapted, with permission, from N.V. Potapova, “Religioznaia zhizn’ naseleniia Sakhalina na sovremennom etape (90-e gody XX - nachalo XXI veka),” Kraevedcheskii biulleten’, No 2 (2003), 70-95. Translated by Sharyl Corrado.

Natalia Potapova is an instructor of history at Sakhalin State University, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia.

Natalia Potapova, "Contemporary Religious Life on Sakhlin Island," East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Summer 2005), 3-4.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe