Dan Pollard, a Baptist missionary from Oregon, settled his wife and teenage daughters in Vanino, a remote town in eastern Russia, four years ago, built a congregation of local families and a church of local timber.
Now Pollard and his family have become the first American missionaries reported to be evicted from Russia since the passage of a law last fall that restricts the rights of minority churches and religions and protects the Russian Orthodox Church from competition.Pollard's case was pressed in a recent visit to Moscow by a fellow Oregonian of a different faith - Sen. Gordon Smith, a former LDS Church missionary in New Zealand. Last year, Smith proposed legislation that links American aid to Russia to religious freedom.
Pollard's case, and other recent reports of religious discrimination in Russia, could jeopardize as much as $30 million in American foreign aid to Russia under legislation passed by Congress last year that restricts the aid unless the Clinton administration can certify that the Russian government is not violating religious liberty.
"We are appealing to the leaders in Russia to please help us return," Pollard said in a telephone interview from Salem, Ore. He said he believed that he had been ousted because a regional official misapplied the new religion law.
"The people there want us," Pollard said. "We have a congregation that has sent a letter to President Yeltsin saying please let our pastor come back. They have no one else to be their pastor."
Preachers and proselytizers from many nations and religious movements have flocked to Russia since the fall of the Soviet communist government, which for many years repressed religious expression.
The law passed last year restricts the activities of any religion not registered by the Soviet state 15 years ago. The law cites only the Russian Orthodox Church, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism as traditional religions native to Russia, and it excludes Roman Catholicism, Protestant groups like the Baptists, and Russian Orthodox breakaway movements, even though most of them have a long history in Russia.
Mikhail Shurgalin, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said he had no information about Pollard and could not comment on his case. But he said the main intent of Russia's new religion law is to restrict "totalitarian sects, those who order their followers and require total submission," the kinds of groups Americans often call cults.
The law was not intended to target Baptists and other Christian denominations, Shurgalin said, so the eviction of Pollard "sounds like it is at least an overreaction on the part of the local authorities."
At the invitation of a Vanino Baptist church led by Russians, Pollard formed his own congregation in 1994, planning to train a Russian who could eventually serve as pastor to the church. He ran children's programs and harvest festivals, helped build school equipment, and said he had good relations with the only Russian Orthodox church in town. He said city officials in Vanino were so supportive that they gave him the land for his church and adjacent parsonage. He registered his church, as required by law, and received accreditation as a pastor.
But he says he recently ran into problems with the regional official in charge of religious affairs in Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia, Viktor Nikulnikov. Pollard says that when he went to renew his visa and his accreditation this year, Nikulnikov told him that under the new law, all American missionaries must leave Russia.
Pollard and his family took a plane from Russia on March 25, leaving behind their house and most of their possessions in Vanino. They have asked Moscow officials for permission to return, and their case was pressed by State Department officials and Sen. Smith on a recent visit to Moscow. Smith is chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on European Affairs.
In his recent meetings with "religious dissidents" in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Smith said he found that some were experiencing "all manner of woe," while others had no complaints at all. He said he had not yet decided whether to advise the administration to cut off or continue aid to Russia. The administration's certification report is due in late May.
"I am very torn at this point," Smith said. "I want to apply enough pressure to help these people of faith in Russia, and yet I don't want to be counterproductive. Nor do I want to waste American tax money on a government that seems to be stepping back into former times. "
Not all financial aid to Russia is at stake. The Smith Amendment would not cut off funds to nongovernmental organizations in Russia or Defense Department financing for the decommissioning of Russian weapons.