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East: Soul-Searching -- U.S.-Based Missions Struggle To Spread The Faith (Part 2)

  • Robert McMahon

Many of the missionary groups active in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are based in the United States. They have functioned freely for decades in the United States and in a growing number of other countries but have found great resistance from authorities in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, in some cases branded as dangerous cults. In the second of our four-part series on religious freedom, RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon talks with officials from U.S.-based religious groups about their experiences.

New York, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- once seen as rich terrain for missionaries -- continue to resist efforts to preach and worship as representatives of legitimate religions.

Government officials and leaders of established religions at all levels have said missionaries at various times were being too aggressive or insensitive, or were posing a cultural threat. In many states, such groups are not allowed to register as official religious organizations. In some cases, missionaries say they have been imprisoned or beaten.

Officials from the predominantly U.S.-based religions, interviewed by RFE/RL, point to constitutional obligations in many countries in the region to permit religious freedom. But although they are alarmed at the treatment of their missionaries, they say they have no plans to abandon the region.

John Graz is director-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, an umbrella group representing a wide range of religious faiths, and is a spokesman for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Graz tells RFE/RL that many of the Western-based missions active in the former Soviet Union are especially concerned about attempts to classify traditional and nontraditional religions, such as in Russia.

"If you give religious freedom, you have to give religious freedom for everyone. If you start to make a distinction between traditional religious organizations and nontraditional organizations, what does it mean? It means probably that you have some agenda behind [that action]."

Still, Graz says, the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- based in Silver Spring, Maryland -- now has a membership of about 100,000 in Russia and has set up educational, publishing and media facilities in Moscow and Tula, south of the Russian capital. Most of its difficulties, he says, have been on the local level, involving harassment of missionaries or disruption of religious services.

One of the fastest-growing and most controversial of the nontraditional religions is the Jehovah's Witnesses. Their numbers have risen from 49,000 when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 to nearly 300,000 last year in the former Soviet republics.

But the Jehovah's Witnesses are also regarded as a threat by authorities in many former communist states. In Turkmenistan, considered by human rights monitors to be the most repressive state in Central Asia, Jehovah's Witnesses face imprisonment and other punishment for preaching or distributing literature. Some believers in Turkmenistan have been sent to labor camps, according to the Keston News Service, operated by the Keston Institute, a British nongovernmental organization specializing in religious freedom issues in communist and postcommunist countries.

Jehovah's Witnesses have also been sent to corrective labor facilities in Armenia for refusing military service, although the government has pledged to adopt a law on alternative military service.

In Georgia, Jehovah's Witnesses have reported 80 incidents of mob attacks in the past two years and no longer meet in public. They are free to preach and congregate throughout most of Russia, but in Moscow, where an estimated 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses live, they face a court battle over attempts by city authorities to bar them from meeting.

Repeatedly, they are criticized as alien interlopers. But Gregory Olds, a lawyer who has represented the Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the former Soviet Union, says such claims are hard to understand. In an interview at the group's headquarters in New York, Olds tells RFE/RL his religion's presence in the region stretches back nearly a century, although it was forced underground by communism.

"What makes someone a Russian, what makes someone a Georgian, applies to us, as well. There are Jehovah's Witnesses on that part of the Earth who have been there for several generations. They listen to much of the same music that other ethnic Russians listen to, and they enjoy it. They know the songs by heart. They've sung them to me. They recite the poetry."

The Roman Catholic Maryknoll Society, a missionary order based in the New York suburbs, has also sought to reconnect spiritual ties severed by communism. It has sent missionary priests to Khabarovsk in Siberia and the Far Eastern island of Sakhalin.

Maryknoll is seeking the evangelization of an estimated 1 million people with Catholic roots in the region, an area larger than the United States. Many were transferred there during the Stalinist period and include ethnic Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, and Lithuanians.

The Reverend Jeremiah Burr, vicar-general of the Maryknoll Society, tells RFE/RL that the five-year-old mission has maintained a low profile and has not attempted to proselytize among Russian Orthodox faithful. But he said Maryknoll still comes under heavy scrutiny by the authorities: "Checking your documents, your papers, your bank transactions, things like that. It is almost an eternal process with a very difficult bureaucracy. So it is not a welcoming atmosphere at all, in that sense."

Olds of the Jehovah's Witnesses says an ingrained hostility toward religion after 70 years of officially imposed atheism has had a lasting impact. It will take time, he says, for that mind-set to change: "There was an influence there to eradicate belief in God among a vast portion of the Earth, and it dissolved suddenly. But concepts and ideas, training, those things perhaps take a bit more time. Now that is not an excuse to say why infringement should be allowed to occur. It should not be allowed to occur. Government should never be the sole source of information to people about religion or about anything else, for that matter. People should be free to express their ideas to one another."

The Jehovah's Witnesses, founded in the United States in 1872, has a worldwide membership of about 6 million and has translated its publications into dozens of languages. Yet even in the United States, it has come under challenge.

The refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to bear arms, salute the flag, or participate in secular government has generated resentment, as has their practice of door-to-door proselytizing. Dozens of challenges to their practices reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-20th century, and the Jehovah's Witnesses won most of them.

Olds tells RFE/RL that the Witnesses have no desire to confront governments. He says they wish only to have the freedom to share their religious faith with other people.

"Our desire is to help people with their basic problems, wherever they might be found, because people are facing poverty, people are facing unemployment, people are facing depression and other problems in that part of the Earth, as well as others. We believe that the message of the Bible is of comfort to them and of help to them."

Other U.S.-based missionaries have spoken of humanitarian, as well as spiritual, aspects to their work in a region still struggling since the collapse of communism. The Reverend Burr of Maryknoll says his group's mission, which includes services to orphans and others in need, has been appreciated by ordinary Russians.

"There are tremendous social problems out there and [Maryknoll missionaries] have tried to reach out to those people, and I think that is appreciated by the Russians and admired. So they have done that and they are able to do that. It is not a deal of, 'OK, we are going to do this, and then you are going to become Catholics.' It is not that at all. They are helping out people who are just rather helpless."

The Catholic presence in Russia alarms some Russian Orthodox believers, however. About 250 demonstrated outside a Roman Catholic cathedral in Novosibirsk in March. They said a Vatican decision to establish four formal dioceses in Russia, succeeding the previous administrative units, was insulting.

Subsequent to the Vatican action, Russian authorities last month barred two Catholic clergymen -- one a Polish bishop, the other an Italian pastor -- from entering Russia, even though both claimed to have valid visas. Poland, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, summoned the Russian ambassador to Warsaw to provide an explanation. No explanation has been made public.

Elsewhere in Russia, local authorities reportedly have acted to close one Roman Catholic parish and to halt construction of a church. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexii, has long accused the Catholic Church of trying to expand its influence in Russia, and firmly opposes any visit to Russia of Pope John Paul II.

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