#11 - JRL 7237
Religion News Service
June 23, 2003
Baptist Youth Pastor Accused of Smuggling in Russia
By Frank Brown
MOSCOW -- Andrew Okhotin, a Baptist youth pastor, took the 10-hour flight from New York to Moscow in late March on a quick and joyful mission. He was going to deliver a $48,000 cash gift from American believers to Russian Baptists, visit for a few days with relatives and then return to the United States and his studies at Harvard Divinity School.
Nearly three months later, the 28-year-old Okhotin is still in Moscow, has yet to hand over the money, and, if Moscow prosecutors get their way, could spend the next five years in a Russian prison.
Russian customs inspectors claim Okhotin is a currency smuggler, who on March 29 deliberately chose the green, "nothing-to-declare" corridor at Moscow's main international airport, all the while carrying $48,000 in $100 and $50 bills in his beige backpack.
In fact, Okhotin says, he made an innocent mistake by stepping into the wrong corridor and, when asked, immediately reached into his jacket pocket and handed over a duly completed customs form he had filled out on the plane.
Learning just how much money Okhotin had, customs inspectors detained him for 12 hours as they interrogated him, offering twice to release him for bribes of $5,000 and $10,000, he says.
As the marathon session wore on without agreement, customs officer Irina Kondratskaya jotted down on a piece of paper her own home telephone number and the cell phone of a Moscow lawyer, saying, "Contact him, he'll tell you what to do," Okhotin recalls, later showing the slip of paper to a reporter.
The lawyer, Okhotin says, offered to get the charges dropped for $15,000.
"I've never heard a thing about this Okhotin you're talking about," the lawyer, Igor Tokarev, said initially in a Thursday (June 19) conversation, recalling a few minutes later that a Russian journalist had interviewed him the day before about the bribery allegations.
Reached at home Friday evening, Kondratskaya hotly denied any wrongdoing, "If Mr. Okhotin is accusing me of bribery, let him talk to my supervisors. I'm not commenting."
Whatever the facts, Okhotin's case has taken on a life of its own by slowly, organically provoking the prayerful indignation of evangelical Christians worldwide. Without any apparent unified effort or formal organization by Okhotin's supporters, the quiet Baptist with an earnest demeanor and a slight stoop has become a cause celebre. Supporters are following his journey through the Russian legal system, his 27-day hunger strike and the prayer appeals on the K-Love Christian radio network, through e-mail and on Christian-oriented Web sites from Denmark to the United States to Russia.
"I think you have no idea how many people are praying. There is so much interest in this case. I think you could comfortably say hundreds of thousands of people," says Sue Clark, whose husband teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois, where 400 students signed a petition for Okhotin's release.
Aside from the perceived venality of Russian officials, the issue also seems to resonate deeply and poignantly in evangelical Christian circles worldwide because Okhotin's predicament brings back memories of Soviet-era religious repression, especially of Christians who were not members of state-approved denominations.
Indeed, Okhotin's father was a Soviet-era pastor in an underground Baptist church who was arrested for his religious work, convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and sent for 21/2 years to a prison near the Sea of Azov where he says his health was permanently damaged. The family -- Andrew Okhotin, his parents and his eight siblings -- emigrated to the United States in 1989.
From his home in San Diego, where he runs Russian Evangelist Missions, Okhotin's father, Vladimir, said he sees an eerie parallel with his own experience.
"They seized him like a Christian. Just as they went after me, they are going after him," said Vladimir Okhotin, 61, who refers to his son by his given name, Andrei. "Our goal is only that God gives Andrei the power to stand his ground and that the money gets to the people who need it. That is not just any money but money that came from poor people in some cases."
Nearly 20 years ago, Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., was one of the hundreds of Americans involved in a letter-writing campaign to win the elder Okhotin's release from Soviet prison. Back then, Pitts was a state legislator in Pennsylvania, but now he sits on the House of Representatives' international relations committee. He enlisted the help of five other congressmen in sending an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Congressman Pitts likes to say that he is a toothache that just won't go away regarding this issue," said Pitts' spokesman, Derek Karchner, from Washington, adding that, so far, there is little progress. "We have had varying degrees of evasion and obstinence from Russian officials. (Pitts) had a rather brief and pointed conversation with the Russian ambassador two weeks ago. Nothing was really accomplished and there didn't appear to be any flexibility."
Ultimately, Karchner said, the strongest political weapon Pitts has is to introduce Okhotin's case during the upcoming discussion in the House on the repeal of the last significant Cold War-era trade restrictions on Russia.
"That's especially true since six of the biggest players on the (trade) issue in the House are involved in Andrew's case," Karchner said.
Elsewhere, Okhotin's supporters have held two prayer vigils involving a couple dozen people outside the Russian Embassy, according to the elder Okhotin. And students at Harvard Divinity School have fasted and taken part in a 12-hour prayer service for Okhotin in Cambridge, Mass., reported Chanta Bhan, a classmate of Okhotin, by e-mail.
The Russian government has not officially responded to the lobbying and petitions aside from a somewhat peculiar June 10 news release from the Foreign Ministry announcing tersely that Okhotin had been detained at the airport for not declaring $48,000 on March 29.
But, according to Okhotin's Moscow lawyer, some of the Russian officials receiving faxed and mailed petitions each bearing "40 or 100 signatures" are increasingly irritated at the sheer volume of missives from America.
"We're talking about more than a thousand and that is just the faxes," said the lawyer, Anatoly Pchelintsev. "I don't think this sort of thing happens very often. I think it is a problem for them mostly on a practical level. I know in the police office, they just didn't have enough fax paper."