Evangelical Christians Fight for a Church

Moscow, Russia - Dozens of evangelical believers stood stunned on Tverskaya Ploshchad across from City Hall, their protest banners lying in police vans, their pastor being carted off to a holding cell.

"This time it was pretty," Yelena Purshaga said last Thursday. Her husband, Alexander Purshaga, is the pastor of the Emmanuel church.

"You should have seen the way it was yesterday," she said on June 2.

The church had sought -- and thought it received -- permission to hold a weeklong demonstration across from City Hall over the loss of land that it had hoped to use to build a house of worship.

But on May 30 and June 1, police and OMON special forces violently broke up the demonstrations, throwing women and children to the ground and swearing at them, parishioners said. One of them, Marina Karandayeva, raised her sleeve to show an ugly ring of bruises around her arm.

For Emmanuel's believers, it was the latest indignity in a decade-long struggle to build a church for their 1,000-member Moscow parish. For some religious liberty organizations, it was further evidence of a mounting, and in some cases violent, trend to persecute Protestant religious minorities.

In mid-May, a group of young men stormed into the Moscow office of the Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith, a main umbrella organization for evangelical churches in Russia, and announced that they had been sent to "beat sectarians."

At about the same time, Perm regional authorities said they wanted to buy back a former palace of culture building that had been sold to an evangelical church -- a decision that came after the church was criticized by the local Russian Orthodox bishop, the mayor of Perm and city legislators. A Baptist home church went up in flames in an apparent arson attack in the Moscow region town of Lyubuchany in September.

Emmanuel's saga began in 1994, when it applied for land to build a church in Moscow. Protestant church membership was growing rapidly at the time, thanks in part to a 1991 law on religious organizations that has since become far more restrictive.

In 1996, the church was granted a plot on Prospekt Vernadskogo, and spent "many millions of rubles" over the next few years preparing the project, said Alexander Purshaga, who is both Emmanuel's chief pastor and president of the Russian Assemblies of God, an organization that includes 38 other parishes nationwide.

But when the Moscow parish was ready to start construction in 1999, authorities in the local administrative district said that residents opposed the project.

"We went out to collect signatures," Yelena Purshaga said. "We did everything by the book: last names, addresses, passport numbers. People knew us because of the charity work we had done with orphans and veterans. Out of the 10,000 people we asked, 6,000 said they weren't against construction."

The church was then abruptly told that the land had been previously promised to the city government for public use, Alexander Purshaga said.

Over the next five years, a series of alternative sites were offered to the church and retracted for various reasons. In 2003, Emmanuel managed to buy a house of culture on Ulitsa Bogdanova in southwest Moscow but was later denied permission to renovate it.

Lawrence Uzzell, president of International Religious Freedom Watch, said Emmanuel was far from alone in its plight. "Securing a meeting space is probably the most common type of problem that Protestant organizations in Russia have," Uzzell said.

Protestant churches throughout Russia have complained that owners of theaters and former cultural palaces have refused to let them rent rooms for religious services because of the opposition of local Orthodox priests or bishops, he said.

"In effect, Orthodox clergy were being given veto power over their competitors," Uzzell said.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II's chief spokesman, Mikhail Moiseyev, denied such practices.

Regarding Emmanuel's difficulties, he said: "Construction in Moscow is a problem for everyone. If in this case there are problems, it's by no means connected to the Orthodox Church."

He noted, however, that "more than once the most holy patriarch has expressed the idea that the activities of many religious groups -- evangelists, neo-charismatics, pentacostals, whatever they call themselves -- have absolutely no historical tradition beneath them and are alien to Russian spiritual life."

Emmanuel's members disagree. Protestants have been active throughout territory of the former Soviet Union for over a century. The Russian Assemblies of God have been registered in the country since 1933, and the families of both Purshagas have worshiped in evangelical churches for generations.

"They ask us who our foreign sponsors are," Yelena Purshaga said. "They say we've come from America to bring a democratic revolution. We don't want anything of the kind. All we want is the land they promised us."

Last month, they decided they had waited long enough.

Emmanuel first held a rally of about 1,500 people on Pushkin Square on May 22. The church also filed for permission to hold a week of protests on Tverskaya Ploshchad. Alexander Purshaga said city authorities never contacted them to reject the request or to notify the church about a change in location within the three days required by law.

When parishioners gathered on Tverskaya Ploshchad on May 30, "the police came and asked to see our papers. We showed them, and everything was fine," Purshaga said. "But on Tuesday, no one asked who we were, whether it was legal or not. They started tearing our posters down and grabbing women and pensioners."

The police department for the central administrative district has since produced a document dated May 26 -- three days after the legal deadline -- changing the rallies' location to Pushkin Square.

"They were not granted permission to demonstrate on Tverskaya Ploshchad. Therefore, the demonstration was unsanctioned," police spokeswoman Yelena Perfilova said.

Regarding parishioners' complaints of police force, she said, "The use of excessive force is forbidden by law."

Alexander Purshaga argued that the May 26 document had no legal force because it had been issued well after the three-day deadline had expired. "This was a provocation," he said.

His argument held little sway in court hearings this week. Several Emmanuel members were fined 500 to 1,000 rubles on charges of participating in an unsanctioned demonstration. Ilya Astafyev, an evangelical pastor who came from St. Petersburg to support the protest, was denied a petition for legal representation on Tuesday and sentenced to five days in jail. On Wednesday, Alexander Purshaga also received a sentence of five days in jail.

City authorities insisted that no one was targeting Protestant believers. "Moscow is a very crowded city," said Andrei Parnov, the spokesman for Deputy Mayor Mikhail Men. "About 400 other religious organizations are now in a similar situation of waiting for land.

"These kinds of churches shouldn't be in a hurry," he said.