#12 - JRL 7226
From: Lawrence Uzzell <Lauzzell@aol.com>
Date: Mon, 16 Jun 2003
Subject: re 7222-Helmer
John Helmer's commentary in the June 13 DJL on a Baptist Harvard student's difficulties with Russian customs officials omits some essential context. First, if one reads the more balanced accounts in the Boston Globe and elsewhere, it is clear that the Russian authorities have not just been trying to enforce customs regulations but to confiscate the entire $48,000 sum that Andrew Okhotin was carrying-or, failing in that, to extract a substantial bribe through the lawyer whom they "recommended" to Okhotin. As one U.S. Embassy official familiar with the case put it, "It was a scam. He (the lawyer) was trying to get money…there was really no way to prove that it was customs officials directly asking for a bribe. We know that this has happened before, and it's the same lawyer." (See the Cnsnews.com account at http://www.crosswalk.com/news/religiontoday/1204100.html.) Such tactics are of course well-known to all of us who have lived for any length of time in post-Soviet Russia.
Second, contrary to Helmer's insinuations, the "initsiativniki" Evangelical Christian Baptists are not a branch of some wealthy, politically powerful group of American Protestant fanatics that dictates George W. Bush's foreign policies, but an indigenous Russian body whose American supporters are mostly Russian emigres. The largest American Protestant organizations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Slavic Gospel Association, have no relations with the "initsiativniki"; they prefer to work through the better-connected, semi-establishment Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, which in a sense is the Protestant counterpart of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.
Of all the Protestant groups in today's Russia, the "initsiativniki" deserve the most sympathy from human-rights advocates of all religious (or non-religious) beliefs. It was they who split off from the mainstream Union of Evangelical-Christians Baptists in the early 1960s because they rejected the Soviet regime's demands that they compromise their own convictions, e.g. that they refrain from teaching religion even to the children of their own members. They paid a heavy price for their refusal to collaborate with the regime-not just in labor-camp sentences for their leaders, but in systematic discrimination in employment and education. The threat of persecution continues to hang over them today: Russia's harsh 1997 religion law (which fortunately has not been systematically enforced) denies them freedoms granted to more tractable religious entities, such as the right to engage in publishing and educational activities. Police harassment of "initsiativniki" attempting to distribute religious tracts and the like has become increasingly frequent since the mid-1990s. If your readers want to keep track of such events and of other religious-freedom issues, I recommend that they look at the website of the Forum Eighteen News Service, http://www.forum18.org/.
It is clear from Helmer's commentary that he has a visceral dislike for fundamentalist Christians. Fortunately, there are other journalists who acknowledge that even people whom one dislikes have basic human rights.