Russian President Vladimir Putin's grip on power has worried evangelical Christians.
MOSCOW/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)-- Evangelical Churches and Christian groups in Russia that are involved educational, social and charitable work are facing harassment from authorities resembling the Soviet-era, rights activists say. One church was reportedly liquidated over alleged illegal "non-religious educational activity", in the heavily Orthodox, post-Communist nation.
Among those targeted is St. Petersburg’s Harvest Pentecostal Church which last month lost an appeal against its closure. Russia’s Supreme Court upheld a previous ruling on November 14, 2013, claiming the church "had been conducting general (non-religious) educational work, which, as a religious organization, it was not licensed to do", said advocacy group Forum 18.
The church was reportedly subjected to an unannounced inspection in May 2013 by officials purportedly checking for “extremist” activity. It was fined for minor violations of fire and sanitary regulations, and the pastor was later summoned to attend the liquidation hearing, the church added in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife Wednesday April 2.
In published remarks the Prosecutor’s Office defended the actions saying church premises were "equipped as classrooms with school desks and chairs [and] shelves with educational literature."
St Petersburg City Court ruled that the church was "running an eksternat, an external/home schooling program."
The church denied wrongdoing saying children’s pastor Yekaterina Lipovskaya and her assistant were teaching in their own time, unrelated to their employment by the church.
Harvest Church lawyer Sergei Chugunov told Forum 18 that the prosecutor need not have sought to shut down the church.
"[They] could simply have demanded an end to the activities they deemed illegal, and taken action in the event of disobedience. But apparently it was decided to resort immediately to the most extreme measure – liquidation."
The decision means that Harvest Church has lost the right to own or rent property. "It nevertheless continues to meet for worship and intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights," reported Barnabas Fund, another advocacy group closely monitoring what it views as Christian persecution.
Elsewhere in Russia, church-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres are facing "state harassment", rights activists said, as part of wider efforts to close them down.
One center, run by Exodus Pentecostal Church in Taganrog in the Rostov-on-Don area, already ended its rehabilitation work after being taken to court last year over alleged violations of fire and sanitation regulations, Christians said.
Two other centres in the Rostov-on-Don region have also been targeted. One, in Duvanovka, was March 22 with everyone present taken away for questioning, said Forum 18 and Barnabas Fund.
The raid reportedly followed an attempt to shut down the centre last year.
A court ruled in June 2013 that it should be closed after it was found to be unregistered, violating sanitary regulations and "lacking a licence or qualified staff" to carry out medical and pharmaceutical work.
The ruling was overturned in August 2013. The other centre, in Krasny Luch, was inspected by police – who failed to show a search warrant – on January 17 on suspicion of "illegal detention, forced manual labour, drug possession and illegal business activities," Christians said.
"Nothing of the kind was found, but the rehabilitation centre’s patients were taken in for questioning" and eventually "No charges were brought," Barnabas Fund said.
A drug and alcohol rehabilitation center run by Exodus church in Smolino in the Chelyabinsk region is also being investigated.
It was inspected on February 28, and a subsequent Interior Ministry report said that police and security services are "continuing a set of measures aimed at collecting evidence and documenting the illegal activity of participants of the Exodus Church," BosNewsLife monitored.
The reports come amid Western allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to re-establish the Soviet Union, targeting groups deemed dangerous to his power base. Putin, who once said "the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century," has also come under pressure following the recent annexation by Russian forces of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
He has defended his actions, saying Moscow wants to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers facing threats.