In the wake of recent controversies over Catholic priests being denied Russian visas, religious groups could be forgiven for taking the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom in this country with a grain of salt.
But despite the challenges they face from the government, the Russian Orthodox Church and even skinhead groups, Moscow's missionaries are quietly going about their business and say the Russian people are receptive to their work.
Sergei Filinov, a pastor at the nondenominational Mission Living Faith Church, said people who join his congregation are usually not religious.
"They may say that they are Orthodox, but they don't really know what that means," he said. "There is some kind of Russian belief that if you are born here you are automatically Orthodox, but Russian people are not exposed to real Christianity and the truth of the Bible."
Despite their differences, Filinov said his organization had a good relationship with the Orthodox church. "It is important to understand that we are both Christian and should try to build our relationship on what we have in common," he said. "I know people in the Orthodox church and we have a great relationship."
Filinov said the Mission Living Faith was introduced to Russia in 1992 by American pastors, who started a Bible class and offered free English lessons. A former bank clerk, Filinov attended one of these classes and soon afterward joined the congregation, eventually becoming a pastor. The church's leadership is now entirely Russian after the last foreign missionaries left in August to spread their message elsewhere.
Filinov said the Mission Living Faith actively recruits new members by inviting people to attend services, going out onto the streets to give out information, publishing a Christian newspaper and offering free English classes.
Chris Ohan, executive director of the International Baptist Fellowship, or IBF, said he found the general ignorance of Russians about religion a bigger problem than any obstacles thrown up by the Orthodox church or the government. Whereas even an atheist American will have heard of major biblical figures, many Russians do not even know who Moses was, said Ohan, who has lived in Moscow for a year and taught history both in Russia and the United States.
Like the Mission Living Faith, the IBF runs Bible classes to attract people who want to practice their English with native speakers. Ohan said two of his Russian friends had come to the church for that reason and quickly converted. While the IBF's original mission was to minister to English speakers in Moscow, Ohan said it has since expanded to include the Russian business community.
"We try to target young Russian executives because they are looked up to by others in the community -- and our attitude is that if they become Christians, possibly others will as well," he said. "We don't convert people to become Baptist, however, but to become Christian."
Ohan speculated that perhaps one reason the IBF has not encountered problems with the government or Orthodox church is because it is an independent church. Founded in 1991, it is part of the Russian Baptist Fellowship and not tied to any organizations in the United States. "The Orthodox church believes the Catholics are stomping on their territory, and its easier for them to attack them, given their headquarters, size and bureaucracy," he said. "It's harder to attack a small church like us, so being independent helps a lot."
But Catholics deny they are invading anyone's space and say they cannot comprehend the hostility of the Orthodox church. Father Michael Ryan, a Catholic priest from Britain, said, "The accusations against the Catholic church are not justified, as we only go to places where there are existing parishes." He said the Catholic church tries only to work quietly with existing communities, practicing discreetly and worshiping in embassies and private houses.
Ryan, who has worked with Catholic communities worldwide, said, "Being a priest here working with a tiny community makes a change. For the most part, non-Catholics are respectful, although often surprised to meet me here."
While the Orthodox church fights the Catholics, other groups -- such as the Mission Living Faith and the Baptists -- which openly proselytize enjoy far more freedom.
Valery Ivanov, the Moscow-based director of the communications department in the Euro-Asia division of the Seventh-day Adventists Church, said his church had gained 45,000 new members over the past 10 years in Russia and 120,000 in the former Soviet states.
"Since perestroika our work has become much easier, although we face many obstacles," he said. "More modern districts accept us, but there is still prejudice against our religion from the more communist areas and from the Orthodox church."
Ivanov said that in some places local councils will insist Adventists get permission to work from the local Orthodox priest.
Establishing a presence where missionaries are not wanted can be dangerous. For example, in the town of Kharborov, near Moscow, Adventist churches have been burned down twice, Ivanov said, and the group is also regularly threatened by nationalist groups. Five years ago in Dagestan, two Adventist missionaries were killed and their bodies burned after a local mob blamed them for the murder of a local girl, he said.
Ivanov said the Russian fear of change and a village mentality are the biggest obstacles to missionaries. "The Russian mentality is different from the Western mentality," he said. "We have been here for 1,000 years, and people have very, very deep roots and are frightened of change. Americans, for example, can move to a new city every three years, but for Russians to move from one place to another, it's like a fire -- it's a tragedy to change your place of living."
To attract new members to the church, the Adventists organize evangelical campaigns, broadcast from a radio station they run in Tula and a television station in Nizhny Novgorod, publish magazines and newspapers, sell books and run a seminary.
Ivanov said the nature of missionary work is changing. Whereas before missionaries simply preached or taught, most now engage in some kind of social work, such as helping orphan children and social outcasts, he said, adding that this is more effective than just preaching.
But while working in Russia may seem a test of anyone's faith, Rebecca Scoggins, associate director of communications at the Adventists' Moscow office, was more upbeat. "In spite of all the trouble, especially in the countries around Asia, where they burn our churches down, Russia is actually the bright spot, and the freedom here is better for most groups than in other countries in the region," she said. "So we have to take what we have."
Copyright Moscow Times, 2002