BY VIOLA HUGHES, correspondent for the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department
n the wake of further religious freedom violations in Azerbaijan, Adventist spokesperson Jonathan Gallagher protested the claim by the country’s religious affairs chief that the government officials were there to help.
“The religious double standard being applied by the Azerbaijani government in closing churches yet claiming to be ‘helping’ religious minorities needs to be challenged,” said Gallagher, an associate director of the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department (PARL) and liaison to the United Nations. Read more on Azerbaijan’s culture and religion.
“The illegal closure of an Adventist church, as well as the ongoing intimidation and harassment of many other faith communities in Azerbaijan clearly demonstrate the official policy towards religious minorities. Now we are being told to keep quiet and not report such violations. Such actions are clearly reprehensible and in clear contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is signatory.”
In a Keston News Service report, Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations (SCRRO), is quoted as warning believers not to complain. “Why do you complain to international organizations?” he asked. “We’re here to help you.”
Pastor Ivan (Yahya) Zavrichko, leader of the Adventist church in Azerbaijan is reported to have responded, “He told us we shouldn’t write to anyone or complain or get them to exert influence on us as it would be useless.”
The illegal closure of the Adventist church in Gyanja on February 26 has brought widespread condemnation. The pastor called SCRRO members and provided full details of what had happened. One member even rang the local authorities and told them not to restrict Adventist activities. However, the closure remains in place and Aliev reportedly professes to know nothing of the incident.
PARL director John Graz visited Azerbaijan in December and spoke at a religious symposium. “Beyond our differences,” he said, “We have to build a better world for all. A world where everyone will be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience: a world where our children and grandchildren won’t be persecuted, discriminated against, or harmed because of their religion, color, or gender. For the moment, problems which motivated our visit should find a solution in constructive dialogue between religious minorities, the government, and the media.”
In his four-day visit Graz met with diplomats and government officials.
“It doesn’t seem as if they were listening,” said Gallagher, “since the Adventist church was shut down soon afterwards. With beatings, fines, and the confiscation of religious materials, we remain to be convinced of the statement that religious minorities are ‘being helped.'”
Church Gives Hospital to Community
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has given its hospital at Wabag in Papua New Guinea to the local Engan community.
Church leaders in Papua New Guinea voted in May of last year to give Sopas Adventist Hospital to the province on the condition that the province repay K427,000 owed to the church. The province deposited the money in a trust account held by the church’s lawyers in February this year.
A group of Engans are administering the 100-bed hospital on behalf of the province after reopening it on March 1. Signs bearing the church logo were removed, and “Adventist” does not appear in the new name.
Denis Tame, associate secretary for the church in Papua New Guinea, says he is “relieved” the issue has been resolved.
The closure followed the attempted murder of the hospital’s director of nursing, Francis Kup. Dr. Isaac Ogendi, one of two doctors at Sopas when it closed, tells of armed warriors surrounding Kup. “One threw an axe that narrowly missed him. Others were about to shoot him before miraculously changing their minds and firing bullets at our ambulance and bus.” Patients at the hospital “fled within two hours.”
The church moved the hospital staff to its local mission compound at Mount Hagen, “and they weren’t prepared to return,” says Tame. Students also received threats forcing the church to relocate the College of Nursing to Pacific Adventist University in Port Moresby, where it continues to operate.
Ogendi stayed at the hospital for two weeks under “extreme duress,” eventually leaving under armed police guard.
Tame is saddened the church no longer administers the hospital. “We did everything we could to keep Sopas open,” he says. “The attack on Francis–the culmination of many years of harassment–convinced us to close.” He stresses the hospital managed its funds appropriately. Dr. Percy Harrold, former health director for the church in the South Pacific, says many recognized Sopas as the best administered hospital in Papua New Guinea. “I hope, in the interest of better health for the Engans, the new hospital quickly achieves the same status.”
Ogendi encourages the church to consider opening another hospital. “Papua New Guineans will appreciate the church carrying on the Sopas legacy. I wouldn’t hesitate to work at a new church-administered hospital if asked.”
French Pastors Convention Studies Baptism
Tensions concerning how much a candidate should be taught prior to baptism led Adventist leaders from the South France Conference to bring pastors together to specifically study and discuss the issue.
The meeting, held at the Moulin de l’Ayrolle in January, was organized by Michel Guenin, Conference Ministerial Secretary. Invited speakers were Teofilo Ferreira, Associate Director of the Ellen G. White Estate and Richard Lehmann, Franco-Belgian Union Conference President. Together they lectured on baptism as it is found in the Bible, early Adventism, and in Ellen White’s writings. Participants were reminded of basic teachings on covenant, church, and the call and responsibility of pastors. Further emphasis was given to the need for new believers to accept and recognize Christ as their personal Savior. Such recognition enables them to understand and bear witness of their new birth, and water baptism thus gains full meaning for the candidate.
“Considering each individual’s Christian experience as different, no preset answers were formulated in a written statement as a result of the conference,” says Bruno Vertallier, president of the South France Conference. “The study was highly valuable for each pastor in attendance. This pastoral convention will certainly be followed by the fruits of the Spirit, as we endeavored to study and put in practice not only Bible teaching, but also Ellen G. White’s counsel on baptism.”
Evangelistic Thrust in New York Targets Russian Population
In early February, the Kulakov brothers–Mikhail, pastor of the Superior district in Wisconsin, and Peter, pastor of the Chapel West district in Indiana–fulfilled a long-held dream by holding evangelistic meetings for the Russian-speaking population of New York.
“Russian Nights in Manhattan,” the name given the program, was a series of 13 evangelistic meetings conducted in the Russian language targeting the approximately two million Russian-speaking people living in the New York City area. These meetings were part of a coordinated plan by the North American Division to reach out to the residents of New York City as they try to make sense of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
“With the support of the North American Division and the Indiana and Wisconsin conferences which provided the funds, our dreams have come together,” Peter said.
The meetings were planned to appeal to the Russian soul. Peter explained, “When it comes to spiritual needs, the typical Russian person receives God through the beauty of worship, the beauty of nature, the beauty of music, the beauty of spiritual art, and the beauty of the poetic spiritual word; therefore, we felt that in our desire to communicate God’s love to them we needed to show sensitivity to that specific national trait.”
Most of the music was provided by Ecclesiastes, a well-known group of ten Adventist musicians from the former Soviet Union. Additional classical music was provided by members of the Russian professional musical community.
Extensive advertising included ads in the four Russian-language newspapers, on the Russian-language radio station, and on an influential web site for Russians in New York.
The meetings were held in the sanctuary of the Manhattan Seventh-day Adventist Church located near the southern tip of Manhattan. “One of the greatest challenges of our outreach was the great distance between the Russian-speaking communities and the church,” said Mikhail.
Because of these traveling concerns and the work schedules of the local people, about half the visitors could only come once or twice during the whole series. Attendance during the week averaged about 100 people, and on Friday and Saturday nights between 150 and 200. About 15 to 20 non-Adventists came each night. Each newcomer received a Russian Bible, a copy of Steps to Christ, and an introductory set of Bible lessons.
“We praised God for each new visitor and for the fact that despite all the cultural, religious, and entertaining events available to them in New York every night, these people chose to listen to God’s Word,” Mikhail said.
Ultimately, a new Adventist church will be planted in New York from the spiritual seeds sown from Russian Nights in Manhattan. A Russian group has been formed from those interested in pursuing the It Is Written Bible study course. Victor Dyman, the Manhattan Church pastor, and the elder of the Russian group in Astoria will follow up interests.
“This outreach in New York gave us all a new vision of what needs to be done for the Russian-speaking people not only in New York, but also in other parts of the United States,” concluded Mikhail.–Richard Dower/James Fox/Lake Union Herald
News NotesDon King, president of the Northeastern Conference, was recently elected president of the Atlantic Union Conference. King replaces Ben Schoun, who was elected Adventist World Radio president.