Seeing no other way out of their situation, 400 of the 500 members of Word of Life Church in the far eastern Russian city of Magadan applied for political asylum in February at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on the grounds of religious discrimination.
Word of Life members have suffered from numerous oppressive acts in the past year at the hands of local government officials, mass media, law-enforcement agencies, and nationalist groups (CT, Oct. 26, 1998, p. 24).
On February 6, masked men representing themselves as law-enforcement agents appeared at the church offices and told two night clerks they were looking for "drug addicts." They forced one of the clerks at gunpoint to go in for questioning.
In December, tax officials seized documents from the church office claiming they needed to verify financial records. However, some documents seized contained nonfinancial information about church members, and law-enforcement officials called some members in for "confidential discussions."
Last summer, the local prosecutor took Word of Life to court in an apparent attempt to close the church. One of the charges was that the pastor "hypnotized" attendees to extort tithes. The prosecutor failed to prove the charge, and the case has been postponed indefinitely.
The pending court case is being used as grounds to hold up reregistration of the church, although there are no legal grounds to do so. The pending reregistration has also been an excuse to evict the congregation from rented facilities in which they have held services for six years, as the pastor claims.
The National Bolshevik Party picketed outside the church last August in a demonstration sanctioned by the mayor. Pastor Nickolai Voskobinikov says Word of Life was the first church of any type in Magadan. Believers imprisoned for their faith in labor camps during the Soviet era settled in the area after their release. Word of Life first registered in 1985 and reregistered in 1994 as part of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Pentecostal.
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