Worshippers Gather Near Debris of Church Demolished by Russian Gov't

Correction appended

It was the second Sunday since Russian police demolished Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church on the eastern edge of Moscow, but the pastor and members have not canceled any of their scheduled meetings despite increasing pressure from authorities to stop gathering near the ruins.

Almost the entire three-story building of the church in Kosino-Ukhtomsky District in Moscow's Eastern Administrative District had been destroyed by police and so-called civil volunteers in the early hours of Sept. 6, but the congregation still chose to gather for its 11 a.m. service on Sunday.

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The church met against the will of local authorities. The church's pastor, Vasili Romanyuk, was summoned by police last Sunday, when the believers stayed for the two-and-a-half-hour service in the rain. Police called the gathering an "unauthorized meeting."

A police officer asked the pastor to sign a protocol, which said he was guilty of holding an unsanctioned, unlawful meeting. However, Romanyuk explained it wasn't political but a religious gathering.

"Vasily asked the police captain why this particular meeting was unsanctioned and the one yesterday, the day before, and the meetings last week, last month, in years past were not!" Dr. Hannu Haukka, founder and president of Great Commission Media Ministries told the Virginia-based National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).

After signing his letter of explanation, police let him go.

The church also held a weekly prayer meeting on Wednesday, and a youth meeting on Friday, both near the debris and under the open sky.

The Russian government is known for discriminating against what are seen as "non-traditional" religious groups, such as the Pentecostals and other Protestant groups, as opposed to groups within Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, which are treated as the nation's privileged "traditional religions."

While many churches have offered their premises to the Holy Trinity church to conduct worship services, the Pentecostal Christians want to continue to gather near the ruins as a matter of principle.

The church's struggle to legalize the building dates back to the mid-1990s. The church was founded in 1979 by Serafim Marin, a Pentecostal who had spent 18 years in Soviet labor camps for his faith. It was registered with the Soviet authorities in the late 1970s, but the city authorities forced it out of its first building in 1995, after which they moved to the building that was demolished earlier this month.

Ron Harris, NRB's senior vice president for Strategic Partnerships, said evangelical churches, ministries, and Christian broadcasters are all feeling the pressure from the Russian authorities.

"This vibrant congregation of dedicated believers stood two and a half hours in the rain last Sunday next to the rubble of their church," he said. "They were worshiping their Lord, praying for the Russian authorities, for their city, and for the impact of the Gospel. I trust all of us who hear of this tragedy will pray for the congregation in these days."

Dr. Frank Wright, president & CEO of NRB, said he can see a pattern in how non-traditional churches are harassed. The government forcibly relocates these churches from city centers by giving them land for relocation in remote suburb as "compensation," but under condition that they construct within a specified time period, he explained. Authorities deny or delay permit requests by these churches to construct in a new place, and finally seek to repossess the land, he added.

Norway-based Forum 18, the first to report on the demolition of the Holy Trinity church, says workers who did not identify themselves, accompanied by police and druzhinniki (civil volunteers), moved in soon after midnight on Sept. 6 and forcibly demolished the building.

Pastor Romanyuk told Forum 18 he had been woken in the early hours and had rushed to the site to try to halt the destruction, but was too late. "The workers didn't say who they were or who had sent them," he said. "They showed no documents. They did all this with the protection of the police, so some state body must have done this."

Correction: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012:

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Ron Harris of NRB observed a pattern of churches being harassed. It was Dr. Frank Wright, not Harris, who made the observation.

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