Zapotylok Veniamin was ordained a pastor in the Unregistered Baptist denomination in December 2021. His first encounter with the law came just six months later. And it hasn’t ended yet.
“It all began in June ,” he recalls. “Two people came to the house of prayer, a representative of the FSB and a deputy prosecutor. They showed their ID documents. The young brothers who live [in the house of prayer] told them that they could not give any information. Brothers gave officials my phone number. The officials called me and came to my workplace.”
Pastor Veniamin’s predecessor at the unregistered church in Nadym, an elderly pastor, was often visited by the previous prosecutor, also elderly. “Our pastor was explaining that he shouldn’t touch us as there would be a lot of noise. And somehow it all worked out,” Pastor Veniamin remembers. “And then a new young prosecutor came and got hooked on us.”
The youngest daughter of the previous pastor is now Pastor Veniamin’s wife. Pastor Veniamin is from Chelyabinsk, 1800 km to the south. He says he used to come to Nadym often for evangelistic outreaches. Now he lives and pastors there and is the father of 8 children ranging from 19 to 3 years old.
“The officials called me and came to my workplace,” he said. “We talked with them about what the IUC [International Union of Churches of the Evangelical Christian Fellowship] is, who the Baptists are. We spoke in an informal, simple setting. And that turned out to be the start. They drew up a protocol or some other document and then used all this data in court against me.”
Soon after the visit to his workplace, Pastor Veniamin recalls, he was summoned to the prosecutor’s office in Nadym. “We went there with my brother. We talked at the table,” he says. “The prosecutor began to say, ‘You see, you are the only one left unregistered. The [government] requires from us for religious groups to be registered. Why don’t you want to register?”
According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, Pastor Veniamin’s experience is becoming more common for ordinary pastors across Russia. “The new generation of pastors is not louder than their predecessors, but the new generation of prosecutors certainly is.”
Voice of the Martyrs Korea highlighted the Nadym Church case last month as one of six court decisions against evangelical Christians and churches in Russia in 2022 that represent what Representative Foley calls a “rising tax on faithfulness”. “Across the Russian Federation in 2022, basic Christian activities—gathering for worship, distributing Bibles and Christian literature, and personal evangelism—were investigated by Russian police and punished as crimes by Russian courts of law.” She says the latest ruling against Pastor Veniamin and the Nadym Church shows the trend continuing in 2023.
Pastor Zapotylok Veniamin with his family.
In Pastor Veniamin’s case, during his appearance at the prosecutor’s office he refused to sign the prosecutor’s statement insisting that the church be registered.
“The materials of the case were based on Christian newspapers with our address, which the prosecutor found somewhere,” says Pastor Veniamin. “There is also a [banner] in front of the house of prayer that says, ‘Repent and believe in the gospel. I am the way and the truth and the life’.” Pastor Veniamin says recordings of the worship service were also used in court as evidence despite the pastor’s insistence that the recordings were unlawful because they were made on private territory without prior notification and consent.
The Nadym city prosecutor filed a lawsuit against Pastor Veniamin and demanded that he register the church.
“In the court session on October 31, 2022, Pastor Veniamin explained that he did not create a religious group, and that worship services were held for the purpose of joint confession of faith, which does not violate the law,” says Representative Foley. “He noted that according to the law, the registration of religious associations is provided as an opportunity, not an obligation.”
Despite Pastor Veniamin’s defense, the court ruled against him and ordered him to send a notification within one month to the Department of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation indicating that he had started a church.
Pastor Veniamin appealed the decision, but on February 16 the appeals court upheld the original verdict.
The church in Nadym.
Still, Pastor Veniamin says he is encouraged that many Christians had sent petitions to the appeals court in support of his position. “At the beginning of the session, the judge was reading for 10 minutes different addresses from which the petitions were sent,” says Pastor Veniamin. “The prosecutor objected that this was not relevant to the case. But the judge decided to attach the petitions to the case.”
Pastor Veniamin has appealed his case to the constitutional court, but he knows that in other similar cases, including one in his native Chelyabinsk, the court’s decisions have remained unchanged.
“Pastor Veniamin and other pastors who are being fined were not demonstrating in the public square or evangelizing passersby on street corners,” says Representative Foley. “They were worshiping in their long-time homes and private church buildings. It is not the new generation of Russian churches and pastors who are changing, but the new generation of prosecutors and authorities who are clamping down more and more on the most basic forms of evangelical Protestant religious activity.”
Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s work with evangelical Russian believers can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/project/russia-ministry/.