MOSCOW – The church is near but the road is all ice, Russian peasants used to say. The tavern is far, but I’ll walk very carefully.
According to a story published recently in the Boston Globe, Andrew Okhotin is a well-meaning young American churchman with Russian origins, who was on his way to deliver donations to a group of Russian fundamentalist Christians known as the Evangelical Christian Baptists. He slipped up at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, the Globe reports, in a dispute with Russian Customs officers over US$48,000 in cash that Okhotin was carrying. Okhotin’s version is that he made a mistake walking down the green corridor, when he meant to choose the red. The Customs version is that he was trying to smuggle the cash without declaring it legally. A preliminary investigation by the Russian authorities decided that Okhotin should go to trial in September. Meantime, he is at liberty in Moscow.
Reportedly, all sorts of Americans are praying to God about this matter, and at the same time calling their congressmen to stop the religious persecution. In the words of one of the US congressmen, Henry Hyde of Illinois, this may be a case of “religious bias on some level inside the Russian government”. Hyde and five other congressmen have written a letter to the Kremlin demanding justice for Okhotin.
The Boston Globe has taken an interest in the case, because Okhotin is a student at the Harvard Divinity School; Harvard, you understand, is to the Globe what God is to the Divinity School – a voice you automatically genuflect to, before you have time to think. And taking time to think is not a practice encouraged by the members of the faith, especially not the Evangelical Christian Baptists of the Russian Evangelist Ministry, a California-based group to which Okhotin and his donations reportedly belong, and which Okhotin’s father reportedly founded after he escaped from being persecuted by the KGB. Naturally, knowing the relief provided from taxes by the US tax code, Okhotin Sr registered his outfit as non-profit. But according to Okhotin Jr, who says he told Russian Customs the same thing, he didn’t declare the $48,000 to the US authorities as he left Logan Airport in Boston, headed for Russia. He may not have known it, but his organization should have realized that’s a violation of US law. Okhotin Jr slipped not once, but twice.
Now don’t get me wrong. The constitutions of Russia and the United States protect the rights of all believers to believe what they will, enjoying such tax relief on Earth as they are entitled to, plus investment credit for an eternity, and to market that investment advice in emerging markets like Russia’s, however dubious may the prospectus. Not for us is the example of some countries, where it is judged criminal to attempt to push one belief down the throats of non-believers. In Greece, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example – states where Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the state religions, respectively -proselytism is a serious crime, punishable by a spell in prison. In Russia, the attitude toward missionaries has been a little more tolerant, if ambiguously so, as the Roman Catholic Church has been discovering when some of its priests have had their entry visas canceled.
In the United States lately, however, fundamentalist believers of both Christian and Jewish types have openly preached in favor of the conversion of the Muslims on the ground, as some have put it, that the third faith is a wicked one. The US holy war against these infidels has been supporting Israel against the Palestinians for many years now. It has even been preached by Harvard professors. But it kicked into spiritual overdrive after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with the US roundup of thousands of suspected domestic infidels; the invasion of Afghanistan; and, more recently, the invasion of Iraq.
When Okhotin Jr (his name in Russian means “son of the hunter”) landed at Sheremetyevo, he had no obligation to disclose what appeals his father had made to obtain the $48,000 in donations, nor what beliefs persuaded the donors to subscribe. Nor does Russian law allow customs officers to interrogate visitors regarding the purposes for which such large sums are to be spent in Russia. The money would be welcome, most customs officers would agree, if it were to be spent in the taverns and casinos that lie between the airport and the city center. But it would matter if the money were obtained with the intent to promote crimes against the Russian state, or such social crimes as incitement to racial and ethnic hatred. That’s a prosecutable offense in Russia, and even if enforcement has been lacking, the kind of anti-Muslim fanaticism that characterizes US public discourse at present is an offense in Russia.
So what exactly was the Okhotin money for? He says there was no mention of Islam in the appeals that produced the money he was intending to distribute. Such funds as had been raised over 10 years of his church’s ministry in Russia had been transferred by banks in the past, but Okhotin isn’t sure how much that may have totaled. Why cash this time? Okhotin cannot explain, nor is he able to estimate how many recipients he intended to meet on his rounds. The number would be “sizable”, he suggested; in addition to assisting individuals, the funds were also intended for congregations and buildings. As for proselytism, that isn’t something Okhotin and his church do in Russia. They “bear witness” to their faith, he says. If the witnesses are persuaded, they are doing no more than their constitution allows them to do with their beliefs, including changing them.
The record of the Okhotin group’s appeal to US donors, available on various websites, suggests that the money Okhotin Jr was carrying into Russia was intended for the creation of what the Okhotin family calls a “united front” of Christians in Moscow. And just whom is the front to defend against? Not Russian persecution in general, nor the Russian special services in particular. According to an interview with Okhotin father and son, published recently on the website www.goodnewsetc.com, “although the gospel may freely be preached in many areas of the former Soviet Union, maybe more of a threat to the dissemination of that bread of life is the rapid encroachment of Islam”. This report by Judy Erickson of Escondido, California, goes on to quote Okhotin Jr: “According to Andrew, as goes Moscow so [go] the rest of the regions of the former Soviet Union. Visitors come to Moscow from the regions to the south, the Islam-controlled Central Asian states that border Muslim-ruled Afghanistan and Iran. Lines of transportation, trade, politics, society, all make Moscow their hub. According to Andrew’s educated observation, Muslim countries tolerate an Orthodox Church because they see it tolerated in Moscow. Similar will be the result, he says, when Muslim and animist visitors view the Evangelical Baptist Church raise a prominent edifice in Moscow.”
Was the $48,000 to help pay for this edifice against Islam? When I asked the question, Okhotin mentioned “support of Baptist families”, but he didn’t refer to the Big Banana. And perhaps discretion on this point is a good idea. After all, is building united Christian fronts against Russian Muslims the sort of activity that the religious communities of Russia, and supporters of their human rights, should be endorsing?
Now the publicity that has been stirred up in the United States could multiply severalfold the $48,000 Okhotin has almost certainly now lost – if not to the Russian authorities, then to the US ones – if the faithful are convinced that a wrong has been done to their churchman and their church. On that point, Okhotin said the publicity has just started, and he doesn’t know whether fresh donations are rolling in. But he does know – he said with conviction – that a wrong has been done by the Russian authorities. And he believes that wrong has nothing to do with the money, or the slip-up at the airport, and everything to do with religious freedom and Russian persecution. Asked what evidence he has to substantiate that, Okhotin says it is that the Federal Security Service (FSB) has made contact with his lawyer. Asked if the counterpart US authorities were to pursue him for his violation of US rules, whether he would interpret that as a case of religious freedom and persecution, he is not so sure.
In the meantime, here’s a lesson for all holy warriors, wherever they walk: When the road is covered with ice, you can almost never retrace your steps.