US Missionaries in Russia Suspected of Spying

July 7, 2008 - 8:08 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - Since President Vladimir Putin came to power, a significant number of foreign Christian missionaries in Russia have been hindered in their work and even expelled from the country, according to a British organization monitoring religious freedom there.

Some of those forced to leave said they had not been able to discover the reason for their expulsion, although officials seem to regard them as a security threat, the Oxford-based Keston Institute said following an intensive two-month investigation.

Last January, Putin signed a new defense doctrine called the "national security concept," which Keston says referred to the "negative influence of foreign missionaries" in Russia.

Keston's Moscow correspondent, Geraldine Fagan, said that, although local officials were the ones usually hostile towards foreign missionaries, "behind these officials often stands the FSB, the successor to the KGB, who appear to regard the foreign missionary presence in Russia as a serious threat to state security."

Dan Pollard, an American Protestant missionary, says he fears Russia will have forced all foreign missionaries to leave with the next ten years. Pollard, who founded a church in Russia's Far East, was denied entry into the country three times last year.

In one case documented by Keston, David Binkley, a US Church of Christ missionary who started a congregation in Eastern Russia in 1994, was accused by local officials last year of smuggling.

Cleared of the charges, he then found his religious work visa had been revoked by the Russian foreign ministry. Russian Embassy officials in Washington have since told him that entrance into Russia is "permanently" denied.

Soon after, another US missionary was expelled from Volgograd, a city in southern Russia. Local media quoted the FSB as saying that "practically all American religious organizations working abroad are in some way connected with the US security services."

Keston said the Russians seem particularly concerned about missionary activity in the remote Far East. In a letter written last February, state officials warned a senior government body that the US had plans to wrest away the far eastern portions of Russia from Moscow's control.

It noted, in this regard, "the religious invasion of a huge number of American Protestant preachers who have recently been stepping up their activity in the Far East."

Based in Oxford and with representatives in Russia, the Keston Institute was founded in 1969 to defend religious liberty in communist and post-communist countries. In 1988, the institute was accused by the Soviet authorities of providing a cover for espionage activity.

An earlier report by Fagan and Keston director Lawrence Uzzell looked at Putin's national-security decree, which replaced an earlier one in force since 1997.

They noted that, while the old document saw the "destructive role of various types of religious sects" as the main religious threat to security, the new one focuses instead on "the negative influence of foreign missionaries."

"Given Putin's roots in, and on-going close identification with, the security agencies, it is likely that local FSB departments will interpret the religious aspects of the new
Security Policy as a signal to step up intimidating actions," Fagan and Uzzell said.

Uzzell said in a statement this week that: "increasing restrictions on foreign missionaries are often an indicator of increasing restrictions on religious freedom in general."

Delivering the first annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in May, chairman Rabbi David Saperstein said the commission was very concerned about "President Putin's recent proclamation that all religious groups not registered by the end of this year would be liquidated ...

"We urge that the US make reversal of this decree an urgent priority in its discussions with the Russian government and that the president will raise this issue in his upcoming meeting with President Putin," Saperstein said.

CNSNews.com
inquired, but comment was unavailable Friday from the press office at the Russian Embassy in London.