With persecution now ended, Protestants in Russia sputter along, pastor says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) A Russian pastor whose grandfather was killed for being a Christian toured the U.S. recently, studying church ministries and providing a rare, first-person look at Russia’s complex religious landscape after widespread persecution ended.

During Victor Ignatenkov’s youth under the Soviet regime, Christians could meet only for worship.

No Sunday school.

No midweek Bible study.

And definitely no proselytizing.

Today, Ignatenkov, 59, said he’s free to lead whatever activities he wants as pastor of the Central Baptist Church in his hometown of Smolensk — a city situated between the capitals of Russia and Ukraine — and as regional bishop for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist. The union is a group of evangelical Protestant churches that began emerging in Russia about 150 years ago as an alternative to the Russian Orthodox establishment.

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s International Peacemaker Program sponsored his U.S. journey, which included stops in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and several other states.

Ignatenkov, speaking through a translator, hedged on discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin helped resurrect the church, which the state once crushed. And though there is no state religion, the Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment.

“Putin can be of whatever confession he chooses,” Ignatenkov says. “What’s important to us, what we value, is that Putin as president holds a neutral stance. We do not experience governmental limitations because we are Baptist.”

Not all church leaders can say the same. The government refuses to recognize some religions, which means religious freedoms are limited. A U.S. State Department report last year slammed Russia for its treatment of minority religious groups, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals and Scientologists.

Members of those groups may be subject to arbitrary laws and denied access to places of worship or visas for visiting missionaries, the report said. Some face physical violence.

For denominations the government recognizes, perestroika, the political reform movement that began in the waning days of the Soviet Union, threw open doors to total religious freedom.

At first, Russians couldn’t get enough evangelical preaching, Ignatenkov said. They packed cultural centers for special services and snatched up free Bibles.

These days, Ignatenkov’s description of his countrymen sounds like the same one American evangelicals bemoan: People are indifferent.

“Probably because the quality of life is better,” Ignatenkov says. “Everything that had been forbidden was of course very interesting. It’s not forbidden, so of course it’s not interesting now.”

A Pew Research Center study of major religious groups in Russia confirms Ignatenkov’s observations on Russian interest in faith. Covering data from 1991-2008, it tracked a surge of interest in Protestant Christianity, Islam and Roman Catholicism that then leveled off. The share of Russians who attended church once a month rose from 2 percent in 1991 to 9 percent in 1998, then dropped to 7 percent a decade later.

Seventy-two percent of Russian adults identified as Orthodox Christians in 2008, the survey found, but that didn’t translate into church attendance.

At the same time, Pew figures show one-fifth of U.S. adults don’t identify with any religion. But Ignatenkov said he’s been impressed by church activities on his trip.

Ignatenkov spoke to a political science class at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., on Monday (Oct. 6) before heading back to Smolensk, with best-practices ideas to share with his church.

Trouble for Russian Christians began in 1937 under dictator Josef Stalin, Ignatenkov said. His grandfather, Pavel Gorbatenkov, reared six children in his Baptist faith, including Ignatenkov’s mother, Olga. With the pounding of soldiers’ fists on the door, they knew in an instant their happy, peaceful lives were over.

Gorbatenkov was imprisoned and denied visits with his family, who still brought food to the prison for two weeks. After that, the soldiers didn’t take the food, but they also didn’t tell the family Gorbatenkov had been shot — news that came years later.

The government began allowing limited worship in 1944.

Today, Russia’s constitution provides for religious freedom, but other laws, including one banning “extremism” and a new law on “offending the religious feelings of believers,” restrict religious freedom, particularly for members of minority religious groups.

Ignatenkov’s family history and ongoing issues with religious freedom in Russia raise the question of whether incidents reported by evangelicals in the U.S. can be called persecution.

In a recent Southern Baptist Convention blog post, an Arlington, Texas, mother wrote that her son was being persecuted after his high school teacher asked him to put away his Bible during independent reading time.

American evangelicals’ claims of persecution echo those of religious minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who took cases to the Supreme Court in the 1940s to protect their religious freedom, observed James Hudnut-Beumler, professor of American religious history in Vanderbilt University’s divinity school.

But it’s a stretch to call what’s happening in America today persecution, particularly in comparison with Russia, Iraq or Syria, Hudnut-Beumler said.

“The U.S. is one of the most religion-friendly places on Earth,” he said.

After his experiences, Ignatenkov said he’d perhaps call U.S. Christians’ negative experiences “discrimination” over “persecution.”

Overall, he said, he was buoyed by America’s large, bustling churches “with rooms for everything.” He said he was most interested in examining churches’ social ministries — to homeless people, in prisons and elsewhere — and taking those lessons home.

He’d also like to duplicate cooperative efforts between governments and churches to provide faith-based services to Russians in need.

(Heidi Hall can be reached on Twitter @HeidiHallTN.)