Russian court shuts down UM church


By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service

United Methodists are investigating a court liquidation of a church in Smolensk, Russia.

Forum 18 News Service reported that Smolensk Regional Court dissolved the United Methodist congregation there on March 24 in response to a suit filed by the regional public prosecutor's office. The church already had been under government scrutiny because of a complaint from Smolensk's auxiliary Orthodox bishop.

United Methodist Bishop Hans Vaxby, based in Moscow, told United Methodist News Service in a March 27 e-mail that the denomination is working with a lawyer to follow up on the court's action, including an appeal.

Forum 18 was unable to reach Yelena Sudarenkova, the prosecutor in the case. However, the pastor, Aleksandr Vtorov, and Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, told that news service on March 26 that the church apparently was shut down because it had a Sunday school.

While not a complete ban, the liquidation forbids the 36-member congregation "from maintaining or developing any form of public profile as an organization, such as through missionary work," Forum 18 reported.

During an investigation of a planned missionary college – which had drawn the earlier complaint – Smolensk Regional Organized Crime Police concluded the church was conducting "educational activity" without a license.

Forum 18 examined the suit from the Smolensk Regional Public Prosecutor's Office against the United Methodists, where evidence of the four-member Sunday school class includes the fact that the children's lessons are graded from two to five points, "although these are presented to the children in the form of sea creature symbols (five points – whale or starfish, four points – dolphin or octopus, three points - fish, two points – shark.)"

In a March 13 complaint to Smolensk Regional Court, Vtorov said the Sunday school is "not a professional religious institution for the preparation of clergy and religious personnel, but serves as an instrument for the teaching of religion to and the religious upbringing of our followers."

According to Forum 18, Russia's 1997 Religion Law distinguishes between educational institutions founded by religious organizations, which must be licensed, and the right to engage in the teaching of religion to the followers of religious groups.