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Members of the 1000-member Emmanuel Pentecostal Church in Moscow were stunned when what they believed was a legally sanctioned protest was broken up on May 30 by Special Forces (OMON) officers. Three of the Christians were jailed and nine given fines for taking part in an illegal demonstration.

In 1996, the church was given permission to build a facility. However, when construction was about to begin in 1999, it was blocked by officials who claimed that neighbouring residents opposed the project. Over the next several years, the church was offered a number of alternative sites; all of which were later retracted. In 2003 they purchased a facility but were then refused permission to renovate the building. Frustrated by the continual blockade they were facing, the church applied on May 20 for permission to conduct a week-long protest rally on Tverskaya Square, across from Moscow City Hall. When they did not receive a notification of objection from city authorities regarding the location within the required time, the church went ahead with the rally, beginning on May 30.

Emmanuel Pentecost Church Rally
Tverskaya Square, Moscow
Photos from
Stetson University - Russian Religion News
The organized demonstration began at 11:00 a.m. OMON special forces had already lined up at Tverskaya Square in order to break up the demonstration. As early as 9:30 a.m., one of the parishioners had already been arrested as he was standing as a lone picket on Tverskaya Square. When his place was taken by another parishioner, he was also arrested together with another member of the Emmanuel Church who was merely watching what was going on from a distance. When authorities moved in and broke up the legal rally, seven people were arrested including the senior pastor, Aleksandr Purshaga. The church continued its protests until June 3, as planned, even though the police continued to break up their meetings each day. In the week that followed, pastors Aleksandr Purshaga and Ilya Astafyev, and the church's administrator, Yuri Popov were sentenced to five days in jail for participating in an "unsanctioned demonstration." The judge also handed down fines to other church members who took part in the demonstration.

Despite the arrests and fines, Forum 18 reports that there may be progress as a result of the demonstration. The vice-chairman of Moscow's Department for Building Policy, Development and Reconstruction, Aleksandr Kosovan, has reportedly ordered that a site be found for the Emmanuel Church by June 30 and that the Moscow government must pay for all planning work. He has further ordered officials to approve documents for the reconstruction of a building purchased by Emmanuel.

Religious freedom in Russia has encountered various difficulties even after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently been influential in blocking the non-Orthodox faith communities and local officials have often caused difficulties for churches, particularly unregistered groups. Forum 18 reported on June 9 that Russia's parliamentary religion committee is presently considering four amendments to the 1997 religion law. Included in these amendments would be the banning of large-scale religious meetings for unregistered organizations. They would also permit only "centralised religious organizations" to invite foreigners for religious work.

Pray that the difficulties facing the Emmanuel Church will be resolved quickly and without further incident. Pray that religious freedom will be applied consistently across Russia for all faith communities.

For more information on the situation facing Christians in Russia, click here.

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