LDS can be a hard sell in Russia

The Salt Lake Tribune, July 24, 2003
By Michael Nakoryakov, The Salt Lake Tribune

    MOSCOW — Five miles is not a long way to go, even in the hopelessly congested Russian capital. But the five miles that separate the Moscow offices of the Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin of the Russian Orthodox Church and Douglas L. Callister, president of the Europe East Area branch of the LDS Church, may seem impossible to traverse.

    “Our relations [with the LDS Church] are minimal,” Chaplin, vice chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, said Wednesday. “Our ecclesiastical differences are much too significant.”

    “The Orthodox Church is getting more assertive, it’s getting into politics and schools,” said Callister, in his fourth year in Moscow. “They seek and often receive preferential treatment in Russia. There is no big difference between discrimination against someone and in favor of someone. The result is the same.” [Note: Highlighting, Religion News Blog. Compare the LDS practice of seeking preferential treatment and engaging in discrimination]

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially started its activities here in 1990, when Russia still was part of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” reforms were in full swing. Even then, it was not formally registered as a branch of a U.S.-based church, but as a Russian-based “religious association” with a Russian president at the helm, a position now held by Vladimir Nechiporov. “This is just a formality,” Callister said. “Most government officials call us a church anyway.”

    This has not changed after the Russian Duma (lower chamber of the Parliament) passed a new law on religion in 1997. The law established a small number of major denominations having a “historical attachment” to the Russian people, such as Orthodoxy, Islam and Judaism, essentially giving other faiths a second-class status.

    “We do not approve of the LDS Church’s missionary effort among the Orthodox believers,” Chaplin said. “Our advice to them is, concentrate more on your own country. There are lots of problems in the United States to keep you busy.”

    That is not an option for Callister, who said with Russia’s 44 missions and 16,000 church members and counting, he sees a bright future for Mormons in the former “Evil Empire.”

    “We continue to grow at a steady pace,” he said. “There are 10 percent more members every year, and Viktor Zorkaltsev, chairman of the Duma’s religion committee, said we grow the fastest among Russia’s denominations.”

    That is not to say there haven’t been horror stories.

    Callister recalled how the church tried to get the mayor of the city of Volgograd to approve an already-completed church building, and finally had to sue to get the approval. A similar situation occurred in the Ural city of Chelyabinsk. Opponents of the church building even put a cross in a corner of the church-owned lot, with a sign calling Mormons “enemies of God.” Again, the mission sued and won. The city appealed, and the church won again.

    “Suing someone is the last resort for us,” Callister said. “And those occasions were not typical. Two such bad experiences in 13 years is not a bad record.

    “We have good friends in Russia, including the government — they are not members of our church, but they want us to be treated fairly.”

    Callister says most problems with the Russians are not specifically an objection to LDS doctrine but are due to the fact that people don’t know what Mormons are all about and because people are reluctant to be too friendly to a minority religion that came from somewhere else.

    And at times, being American doesn’t help.

    “There was a time, in the early 1990s, when everything American was interesting and appealing to the Russians,” Callister said. “That’s no longer the case, especially during such events as Iraq and Kosovo. Our answer is, we keep working on our humanitarian effort, and we try to emphasize there doesn’t have to be a direct connection between our 500 charity projects in Russia and our proselytizing.”

    Chaplin said he sees no reason for animosity between the Orthodox leadership and the LDS Church. He also sees no competition.

    He said his church, more than a decade after the collapse of the old Soviet regime, is experiencing a powerful revival, with the religion gradually taking its natural place in the life of Russians.

    There are 15,000 new Orthodox cathedrals and 40 monasteries in Russia, and the number keeps increasing. He said religion is no longer a fad or clever public relations for politicians, and its influence is growing among the younger generation. Chaplin’s prediction is that the LDS Church’s chances to win over the hearts of young Russians are not high, but its message remains worthy.

    “It’s obvious [the LDS Church] is concerned about the moral state of the society, and we are, too,” he said.

    “I have been to Utah and saw how clean it is, how little crime and drinking problems they have. We have common challenges, and we have to meet them in an active way, according to our convictions, and we need to learn to listen to each other.

    “After the 1997 law passed and all the churches had to re-register with the Russian government, the LDS Church organization was approved before us. They have good lawyers.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 28, 2003.
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