Soviet Baptist leader Georgi P. Vins, 46, was sentenced last month during a closed trial in Kiev, Ukraine, to five years in prison and five years of exile, He was found guilty of using religion to cloak illegal activities. The charges lodged against him (see December 20, 1974, issue, page 26) were recognized by church leaders around the world to be the kind Soviet authorities have used repeatedly to harass believers.
News of the verdict reached the West through Andrei D. Sakharov, the dissident Soviet physicist who has been speaking out about violations of human rights in his land. Vins was not represented by a lawyer at the five-day trial, said Sakharov. The clergyman reportedly rejected a court-appointed attorney on the grounds that an atheist was not qualified to handle a case involving religious matters.
Earlier, Sakharov and several Soviet Christians had written to the World Council of Churches on Vins’s behalf, requesting a Christian lawyer from the West to represent him. WCC president Philip A. Potter wrote to Soviet authorities, asking for the text of the indictment against Vins and for provision of a Christian attorney to represent him. The Soviets did not reply to Potter’s letter. On January 30 Potter and the WCC’s top officers issued a statement urging the Soviet government to “contribute toward international understanding” by permitting a WCC legal observer to attend the trial. Again, the Soviets did not respond. It was already too late: Vins was convicted and sentenced the next day.
It is believed to be the first time the WCC has publicly confronted the Kremlin in a case involving persecution of Baptist leaders. “We have reason to believe … that the charges against Mr. Vins are made primarily because of his religious convictions and activities,” the statement asserted. The leaders said their appeal was made “in view of the commitment of the World Council of Churches and its member churches to the fundamental right of people to live according to their own chosen religious convictions.”
Six prominent Norwegians, including three members of Parliament and a judge accredited to represent the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, applied for permission to attend the trial. The Soviet embassy, however, returned their visa applications without comment. This drew a stern protest from Bishop Monrad Norderval of the Church of Norway (Lutheran), chairman of the denomination’s mission work in eastern Europe, who vowed to continue to fight for Vins’s freedom.
Appeals came from many other people. Directors of the New York-based Research Center for Religious and Human Rights in Closed Societies, including several denominational heads, asked for Vins’s release. Former U. S. Senator Harold Hughes, who last year explained his faith in Christ to four United Nations ambassadors from the U. S. S. R., asked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to look into the matter. Church, high school, and college groups engaged in letter-writing campaigns.
The Academy of Parish Clergy, an alliance of 1,100 Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy, condemned the sentencing. The Academy is led by Illinois pastor F. Dean Lueking, a leader of the moderate-liberal forces in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
“Let the entire world know that there is no religious freedom under Communism,” declared the Illinois-based All-Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Fellowship.
“The repression of Baptists in the Soviet Union is no less outrageous than the denial of religious freedom to Jews in the Soviet Union,” said the Synagogue Council of America.
Vins was arrested last March and held incommunicado ever since. Reportedly being held in a hospital in poor health, partly the result of a previous three-year prison term, Vins is executive secretary of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (CCECB), the ten-year-old breakaway Baptist organization the government refuses to recognize.
The chairman of the CCECB is Genady Kruchkov, father of nine school-age children. He has been in hiding since his release from prison in 1969. His children have not seen him since then, and his wife Lydia sees him only occasionally. Lydia in a recent letter tells how her family discovered a listening device in a newly replaced electric meter inside their home. The transmitter was American-made, she notes. The police warned her not to tell anyone about the bug, and they hassled family members, but she alerted other Christian leaders, who presumably embarked on search missions around their own homes. Lydia says that Vins was arrested after visiting a home where the electric meter had just been changed. He was hiding from authorities at the time.
Kruchkov and Vins were among leaders who in 1961 began working for reform within the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB). The reform movement led to the founding of the CCECB in 1965.
In December, the AUCECB held its forty-first congress in Moscow, a conference that is convened every five years. Nearly 500 delegates attended, along with 150 observers, including sixteen foreign guests (among them American Robert S. Denny, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance). AUCECB head Alexei Bichkov read a sixty-seven-page report. Among subjects discussed were the charismatic movement, the possible service of women as pastors (rejected), excommunication (some 4,000 have been excluded from the churches in the last five years), Bibles and other Christian literature, theological education (200 students completed two-year Bible correspondence courses), and relationships with the CCECB.
Concern was expressed over the bitter attitude of some CCECB leaders toward the AUCECB. It was reported that about 3,500 CCECB members had returned to AUCECB churches in the five-year period, with some drifting back to the CCECB. The AUCECB listed 535,000 members and more than 12,000 baptisms in the five years. (There are no firm estimates of CCECB membership: 100,000 is the figure mentioned most.) There are registered (government-recognized) and unregistered congregations in both bodies.
Clergyman Andre Klimenko was elected president of the AUCECB, succeeding Ilja Ivanov.
Following the congress an international delegation of Baptist leaders (including Denny) met for more than two hours with government leaders. They discussed church-state matters, especially the situation regarding the CCECB. The visitors inquired about believers in jail, and they asked for clemency for Vins and others. A government spokesman said that the AUCECB had made such a request last fall on behalf of 180 imprisoned dissidents and that sixty of these had been released.
Current reports reaching the West, however, indicate that arrests and other harassment of CCECB members are still occurring. The Soviet Union has not changed its policy toward believers, insist critics, and ailing Georgi Vins is Exhibit A.
More than 1,600 couples were wed this month in a mass ceremony in Seoul, Korea, presided over by Korean cultist Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church. Marriage has special religious significance for members of the sect, and Moon has a necessary role in approving—and even selecting—the partners, who must serve the church for three years before becoming eligible for the rite.
Many of the couples did not know each other before the week of the wedding. As a matter of discipline, they are required to wait for forty days after the ceremony before consumating their marriages. Core workers are expected to work as missionaries for the first three years of their marriage, separated from their mates.
A number of Japanese parents formed a group to protest the mass wedding, but to little avail. An estimated 500 Japanese couples took part. (The Moon followers, who believe a Korean Christ will soon appear on the scene to finish the work of salvation, have made Japan a special target of their evangelistic endeavors this month.)
Meanwhile, Moon’s church has been buying up hundreds of acres—about $5 million worth so far—near Tarrytown, New York, apparently to build a major center or university.
Christians in Liberia’s jungle region recently held their first “faith promise” missionary conference. More than 700 believers gathered in Tournata Village for the eight-day conference. Evangelism minister Elmer McVety of Toronto’s Peoples Church was the main speaker.
The total faith-promise (pledges) offering of $8,721.51 hardly seems comparable to the $711,000 that was pledged by The Peoples Church in Canada at its 1974 missionary conference. But McVety points out that the average yearly income in the jungle is $125.
The Association of Independent Churches of Africa, headed by Liberian Augustus Marwieh, will use the funds for missionary outreach to unevangelized tribes. The Liberian churches plan to make the “faith promise” offering an annual event.
LESLIE K. TARR
Scientology: No Case
The Church of Scientology of Toronto withdrew libel suits against two public library boards in southern Ontario. The cult had charged that the Hamilton and Etobicoke libraries were circulating defamatory books about it. Specifically mentioned were Scientology—The Now Religion by George Malko, The Mind Benders by Cyril Vosper, Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman, and Scandal of Scientology by Paulette Cooper. In a letter to the executive director of the Canadian Library Association, Philip McAinly, a Scientology minister, wrote: “we have decided that libraries should be free to circulate whatever literature they please, providing all viewpoints on the subject are presented.”
The Canadian Library Association had urged libraries to keep the books on shelves despite threats of legal action by the Scientologists. It had underscored its support by advancing $1,000 to help the libraries with legal fees.
Earlier, a Missouri court threw out a million-dollar Church of Scientology suit against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a team of reporters for a series of articles on Scientology last year.
Cops And Krishna
Members of the Krishna Consciousness sect, known for their “hare Krishna” chants, orange robes, and shaved heads, are in trouble in West Germany, according to German news sources. Temple president Peter Kaufman, 24, and vice-president Stephen Kress, 27, were arrested at their castle retreat in the Taunus mountain region. They were apprehended along with nearly eighty other members in the castle. Police say they found a number of weapons and about $25,000 in cash.
Kaufman was charged with fraudulent begging and violations of the gun law. Kress was also accused of fraudulent begging and of kidnapping his two-year-old daughter from her legal guardian, possibly smuggling her into a foreign country.
Police officials claim records found in the castle showed the group had an income of some $90,000 per month. Of that, about $2,000 monthly went to sect headquarters in Bombay, India, and more than $1,000 went toward rental of the castle. The average daily income from begging and peddling (books, incense, tape recordings, and the like) was approximately $175 per person, say the police.
Decline In France
All is not well with the Catholic Church in France. While 90 per cent of the French are baptized Catholics, polls show only 20 per cent or so attend mass weekly (50 per cent of American Catholics do so). The number of priests has declined from 41,000 in 1965 to 37,000 this year, and it is expected to slump below 32,000 next year.
REPORTING FOR DUTY—AS ALWAYS
Retired Salvation Army major John Jay Shearer of suburban Atlanta celebrated his 104th birthday a few weeks ago, and he’s still going strong. He told Atlanta Constitution reporter Alice Murray he “got saved” in a Salvation Army meeting in Chicago in 1894 at the age of 23, joined up two years later, and has been evangelizing for the Army ever since.
“You can’t get into heaven unless you have been born again. [Jesus] is coming again, and he’s coming soon,” the feisty, blue-eyed patriarch tells almost everybody he meets.
At one time Shearer served as aide and barber for General William Booth, who founded the Army in London in 1865. The general had long white hair and “a great white beard,” recalls Shearer.
A typical day for Shearer begins with breakfast at 5 A.M., a half-mile walk around the neighborhood, a long ride on an exercise bicycle, and a period of prayer and Scripture memorization.
White House Welcome
Thirty-five leaders of the National Council of Churches, representing all thirty-one member-denominations of the NCC, met with President Gerald R. Ford for about an hour following the evangelical-oriented National Prayer Breakfast on January 30. It was the first time in more than a decade that NCC leaders were welcomed at the White House, off-limits to main-line church leaders during the Johnson and Nixon administration because of NCC-led criticism of the Viet Nam war.
The meeting was in response to a telegram NCC general secretary Claire Randall sent Ford after his inauguration requesting that he meet with religious leaders, according to NCC press secretary Warren Day. A White House spokesman said other meetings were planned with Catholic leaders, Jewish officials, and heads of religious groups not included in the other gatherings.
Both Ms. Randall, the only woman in the delegation, and NCC president W. Sterling Cary commented favorably on the meeting, which was closed to the press. They and others indicated the meeting’s greatest value lay in the channels of communication it opened. The NCC leaders discussed their concerns in the areas of human rights, the world food crisis, and the economic and energy situations. Questions concerning Southeast Asia were not raised. At one point Ford and the churchmen exchanged views on national priorities. Ford said he would designate aide Ted Marrs to act as his personal liaison with the NCC for ongoing matters. Be specific when raising issues, he urged.
Cary thanked the President for his “openness” and for his “willingness to enter into dialogue with those he didn’t necessarily agree with.” He closed the session with a prayer for guidance for the President, “who does not have the luxury of simplistic solutions,” and for a “day of healing, not only for our land but for the world.”
Leon The Lobbyist
Black Baptist clergyman Leon H. Sullivan of Philadelphia, founder of Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC), a self-help training program, did some public lobbying with President Ford this month. Ford spoke at a luncheon meeting of some 1,500 delegates, dignitaries, and business leaders at the OIC’s annual convention in Atlanta this month, the largest black audience Ford has addressed to date (black mayors and African ambassadors were among those attending). During introductory remarks, Sullivan told the President that OIC, which has 117 chapters in forty-seven states and four African nations, had already trained 200,000 people.
“Strengthen the roots and you strengthen the tree,” boomed Sullivan. “We’re going to help you, Mr. President. Now, you help us get that $75 million.” He was referring to the amount he wants the government to give OIC for expansion to 200 more cities and other countries and to train 75,000 new workers.
Ford good-naturedly acknowledged Sullivan’s pitch and his efforts on behalf of the unemployed and unskilled. Then he launched into a standard speech on energy proposals, which got only a cool reception from the audience.
Still lobbying, Sullivan presented the OIC’s Excellence in Government award to Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s chief of staff. “We know you as a friend of OIC,” said the smiling Sullivan.
Later in the day Sullivan gave the OIC’s state-government award to Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama. Black mayor John Ford of Tuskegee introduced Wallace, saying, “My governor has been fair and judicious to all Alabamans—rich or poor, black or white.” Wallace in his acceptance speech characterized Sullivan as a modern Booker T. Washington. He described himself as a man “with one foot in the old South and one foot in the new South.” Blacks and whites must work together, he declared.
Allied For Aid
Ontario private schools took a step closer to obtaining government aid by forming an association of “alternative” and independent schools in Toronto. It includes schools run on a religious, linguistic, or private basis for which government funding is not provided.
One of the organizers is John Olthuis, a Toronto lawyer who represents the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools. Some 10,000 of the province’s 90,000 private-school students attend Alliance schools.
An initial goal of the new group, says Olthuis, is to get government approval for parents of private-school students to direct a portion of their taxes to the school of their choice. The government has turned a deaf ear so far.
Catholic schools by virtue of constitutional guarantees get government aid. This arrangement is an outgrowth of Canada’s French (Catholic)-English (Protestant) cultural division. Schools for the latter became the public (secular) system; those of the former retained their link to the Catholic Church. Organizers of the new association hope to convince government officials that the system of private schools is just as valid a recipient of aid as the Catholic system.
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