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From: "John Helmer" <helmer@online.ru>
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 2003

By John Helmer in Moscow

The church is near but the road is all ice, Russian peasants used to say. The tavern is far, but I'll walk very carefully.

According to a story just published in the Boston Globe, Andrew Okhotin is a well-meaning young American churchman with Russian origins, who was on his way to deliver donations to a group of Russian fundamentalist Christians known as the Evangelical Christian Baptists. He slipped up at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, the Globe reports, in a dispute with Russian Customs officers over $48,000 in cash which Okhotin was carrying. Okhotin's version is that he made a mistake walking down the green corridor, when he meant to choose the red. The Customs version is that he was trying to smuggle the cash without declaring it legally.

Apparently, all sorts of Americans are praying to God about this matter, and at the same time calling their congressmen to stop the religious persecution. In the words of one of the US congressmen, Henry Hyde of Illinois, this may be a case of "religious bias on some level inside the Russian government." Hyde and five other congressmen have written a letter to the Kremlin demanding justice for Okhotin.

The Boston Globe has taken an interest in the case, apparently because Okhotin is a student at the Harvard Divinity School; Harvard, you understand, is to the Globe, what God is to the Divinity School - a voice you automatically genuflect to, before you have time to think. And time to think is not a practice encouraged by the members of the faith, especially not the Evangelical Christian Baptists of the Russian Evangelist Ministry, a California-based group to which Okhotin and his donations reportedly belong, and which Okhotin's father reportedly founded, after he escaped from being persecuted by the KGB. Naturally, knowing the relief provided from taxes by the US tax code, Okhotin senior registered his outfit as non-profit. But according to Okhotin junior, who says he told Russian Customs the same thing, he didn't declare the $48,000 to the US authorities as he left Logan Airport in Boston, headed for Russia. He may not have known it, but his organization should have known that that's a violation of US law. Okhotin junior slipped, not once, but twice.

Now don't get me wrong. The constitutions of Russia and the United States protect the rights of all believers to believe what they will, enjoying such tax relief on earth as they are entitled to, plus investment credit for an eternity; and to market that investment advice in emerging markets like Russia's, however dubious may the prospectus. Not for us is the example of some countries, where it is judged criminal to attempt to push one belief down the throats of non-believers. In Greece, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example - states where Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the state religions - proselytism is a serious crime, punishable by a spell in prison. In Russia, the attitude towards missionaries has been a little more tolerant, if ambiguously so, as the Roman Catholic Church has been discovering when some of its priests have had their entry visas cancelled.

In the US lately, however, fundamentalist believers of both Christian and Jewish types have openly preached in favour of the conversion of the Moslems, on the ground, as some have put it, that the third faith is a wicked one. The American holy war against these infidels has been supporting Israel against the Palestinians for many years now. It has even been preached by Harvard professors. But it kicked into spiritual overdrive after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with the US roundup of thousands of suspected domestic infidels; the invasion of Afghanistan; and a few weeks ago, the invasion of Iraq. By the way, it's a pity the Bush Administration chose to rely on a pack of provable lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, when it could have proceeded on the basis of those tenets of faith that brook no argument. Did the fanatics, sorry the faithful really mean to convince the skeptics with facts? Or did they believe the faithful have as much right to use deceit when fighting against non-believers, as against infidels?

When Okhotin junior (his name in Russian means "son of the hunter") landed at Sheremetyevo, he had no obligation to disclose what appeals his father had made to obtain the $48,000 in donations; nor what beliefs persuaded the donors to subscribe. Nor does Russian law allow customs officers to interrogate visitors regarding the purposes for which such large sums are to be spent in Russia. The money would be welcome, most customs officers would agree, if it were to be spent on the taverns and casinos that lie between the airport and the city center. But it would matter if the money were obtained with the intent to promote crimes against the Russian state, or such social crimes as incitement to racial and ethnic hatred. That's a prosecutable offence in Russia, and even if enforcement has been lacking, the kind of anti-moslem fanaticism that characterizes American public discourse at present is an offence in Russia.

So what exactly was the Okhotin money for? He says there was no mention of Islam in the appeals that produced the money he was intending to distribute. Such funds as had been raised over ten years of his church's ministry in Russia had been transferred by banks in the past, but Okhotin isn't sure how much that may have totaled. Why cash this time? Okhotin cannot explain, nor is he able to estimate how many recipients he intended to meet on his rounds. The number would be "sizeable", he suggests; in addition to assisting individuals, the funds were also intended for congregations and buildings. As for proselytism, that isn't something Okhotin and his church do in Russia. They "bear witness" to their faith, he says. If the witnesses are persuaded, they are doing no more than their constitution allows them to do with their beliefs, including changing them.

Now the publicity that has been stirred up in the US could multiply severalfold the $48,000 Okhotin has almost certainly now lost - if not to the Russian authorities, then to the US ones - if the faithful are convinced that a wrong has been done to their churchman and their church. On that point, Okhotin says the publicity has just started, and he doesn't know if fresh donations are rolling in. But he does know - he says with conviction - that a wrong has been done by the Russian authorities. And he believes that wrong has nothing to do with the money, or the slip-up at the airport; and everything to do with religious freedom and Russian persecution. Asked what evidence he has to substantiate that, Okhotin says it is that the Federal Security Service (FSB) has made contact with his lawyer. Asked if the counterpart US authorities were to pursue him for his violation of US rules, he would interpret that as a case of religious freedom and persecution, he is not so sure.

A Russian decision is expected shortly on whether to prosecute Okhotin on a criminal charge of smuggling; to impose a $19,000 fine for an administrative violation; or to release him and return his money. In the meantime, here's a lesson for all holy warriors, wherever they walk. When the road is covered with ice, you can almost never retrace your steps.

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