Alan Kent Scholes
Perry Glanzer's article poses a question critical to all mission efforts within the former Soviet Union: What factors led to the 1997 law restricting religious freedom in Russia? Dr. Glanzer answers this question by recounting portions of the history of the work of the International School Project and the CoMission in cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Education during the decade of the 1990s. His concluding paragraph makes clear he believes: 1) the Russian Orthodox Church was the primary influence behind the 1997 law, and 2) the Orthodox Church promoted the law primarily to stop the CoMission and other similar Western evangelical missionaries.
It is beyond my ability to assess the extent of Orthodox influence on the Russian Duma in passing the law, or on President Yeltsin in signing it. However, the notion that the Orthodox Church was motivated substantially, or perhaps even primarily, by a desire to stop the CoMission has not been demonstrated by Professor Glanzer in this article and, in fact, I believe it to be false. As evidence, Glanzer asserts that Russian Orthodox opposition ultimately broke "the fragile political partnership between the Russian Ministry of Education and the CoMission." First, let me mention a minor quibble. There never was anything that could be remotely construed as a "political" partnership between these two bodies. I am certain that CoMission leaders never had any ambitions to influence the politics of Russia. The partnership, from both sides, was an educational one. But my larger concern with the statement is the assertion that Orthodox opposition broke the partnership. A little historical context may help shed light on what really happened.
The International School Project (ISP) began early in 1991 when Paul Eshleman, director of the JESUS Film Project, asked future ISP director Dr. Blair Cook to assemble an international team of scholars and educators to write a brief curriculum to be distributed to Russian teachers with copies of the JESUS Film. Ministry of Education officials had requested that convocations be held on a trial basis in three Russian cities to orient selected teachers to the curriculum and film. In May 1991 I joined a group of Western Christian scholars, educators, and Christian leaders, accompanied by a group of officials from the Ministry of Education, in conducting week-long convocations in Moscow, Vologda, and Leningrad. The response of the teachers and officials was extremely positive and ISP was invited to provide similar teacher-training convocations in many cities throughout Russia and eventually nine other countries of the former Soviet Union. In the end, more than 100 such convocations were held.
The Window of Opportunity
From the very earliest days of the project in 1991 many of us believed that the window of opportunity would be short. Campus Crusade speaker Josh McDowell spoke frequently of a "five year window." I also publicly predicted, on a number of occasions, that our opportunity would last only a short time, perhaps only a few years.
There were at least three reasons that many felt the period of openness would likely be short. First, in 1991 religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was a novelty. Seventy-five years of Communism had left an intense spiritual vacuum. Also, Christian literature and media such as the Bible and the JESUS Film had the added allure of "forbidden fruit." On a number of occasions in 1991 I saw Russian teachers, even some who professed to be atheists, with tears of joy running down their cheeks as I gave them their own copies of the Bible in Russian. It was evident to me that this sort of spiritual fervor could not long endure.
Second, when the doors flew open, everything flooded in. By 1991 CNN and MTV were ubiquitous. Western groups such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses quickly sent thousands of missionaries. Eastern-based groups such as the Unification Church also quickly gathered converts. New Age ideas such as belief in astrology, UFOs, and reincarnation spread like wildfire.
Finally, it was clear that there would be opposition and reaction to the gospel. Russian nationalists, diehard Communists, and some factions in the Orthodox Church all had different reasons to oppose Western evangelical missions. I was aware from the beginning that one or a combination of these groups might soon succeed in hindering or even outlawing Western missionary efforts.
The Nature of the CoMission-Government Relationship
For all these reasons, CoMission leaders viewed their work as a short-term effort. The CoMission was a joint project of dozens of mission agencies to send teams to as many of the convocation cities as possible to provide follow-up for the teachers and assist them in their Christian growth. It was planned from the beginning that it would be a five-year project from 1992 to 1997. Glanzer states that the Russian Education Ministry "suspended the protocol of intention with the CoMission" in February of 1995. However, that meeting was only one of several renegotiations and readjustments that took place during the five years of the CoMission operation. Glanzer gives the impression that CoMission work was halted early in 1995. In fact, the CoMission actually continued to send teams to new cities with the cooperation of both national and local educational officials through the end of 1997. When CoMission efforts did begin to taper off, it was because 1997 was the end of the planned five-year project, not due to some falling out with the educational ministry, or even because of the 1997 Duma action.
Did the CoMission Trigger Restrictions on Religious Liberty?
With this background, I want to answer more directly what I see as the most disquieting implication of Glanzer's article. Were the actions of the CoMission or ISP a contributing--or even major--cause of the 1997 law restricting religious freedom? I find this conclusion extremely unlikely, if not impossible.
If the primary, or even a significant, intent of the 1997 law was to restrict the distribution of ISP materials or hinder CoMission-related teacher training, it would be reasonable to assume that most or all ISP activity in Russia would have ceased after 1997. At the very least, such activity could not have been carried on with the cooperation, much less the official sanction, of Russian educational officials. But cooperative efforts did not cease; instead, they accelerated.
In 1999 Alexei Brudnov, the department head for Supplemental Education of the Russian Federation Ministry of Education, asked ISP to write a 30-lesson curriculum to accompany the audio-cassette "Story of Jesus" produced by the JESUS Film Project of Campus Crusade. Once again, I served as a writer and content editor for this curriculum. In June 1999 an official educational review board in Moscow examined the curriculum, recommended a number of changes, and then gave the edited curriculum its full endorsement. In July 1999 a deputy minister of education signed a formal agreement for the audio tapes and curriculum to be distributed to all 67,000 schools in Russia. (The same week, Alexei Brudnov tragically died of a heart attack.) During the 1999-2000 school year these materials were made available to nearly every school in the country. This high level of approval and official cooperation exceeds even the cordial relationship ISP enjoyed with the education ministry in previous years. Could this have taken place if ISP or the CoMission had been a major target of restrictive national legislation only two years prior?
If it was not the CoMission, then what were the targets of the Orthodox Church and the Duma in the 1997 law? I believe there is a simple and much more likely explanation than the one suggested by Glanzer. During the 1990s there was a virtual flood of cultic missionaries into Russia from both East and West. These were both much more visible and more troubling influences than the rather sedate and professional educational activities of ISP and the CoMission. Many observers believe that the Orthodox Church and the Duma were primarily concerned to stem the tide of this aggressive cultic onslaught. Such is the conclusion of Paul Carden, executive director of The Centers for Apologetic Research:
It is clear that one of the primary motives of the 1997 religion law was to curb the expansion of aggressive foreign cults such as Aum Shinrikyo, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Unification Church. I am not personally aware that the work of the CoMission was even a concern, much less a major motivation behind the Duma action.My own experience with the International School Project and the Russian Ministry of Education since 1991 does not lead me to believe that ISP has played any, even inadvertent, role in restricting religious freedom or the progress of missionary efforts. On the contrary, it is my personal belief that ISP has done much over the years to enhance the relationship between Russian Ministry of Education officials and Western evangelicals.
Alan Kent Scholes is associate professor of theology at International School of Theology, Fontana, CA. He has been a staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ for more than 30 years and has worked closely with the International School Project since its inception in 1991.
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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report