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Saving the Russian Soul : Religion: Thousand Oaks evangelist Mark Finley spreads the Gospel, but legislators want to deny foreigners a pulpit.

July 23, 1993|BETH KNOBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — Thousand Oaks televangelist Mark Finley came to Moscow to preach to Russia's spiritually needy, hoping to help them cope with lives darkened by runaway inflation, rising crime and societal instability.

For the past month, his message has drawn thousands of Russians to Moscow's huge indoor Olympic Stadium, where Finley is preaching four days a week during his six-week crusade for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 people have attended each day since the crusade began, and more than 25,000 Russians have received free Bibles from the crusaders.

But a new law could prevent Finley and other foreign religious figures from ever cracking open a holy book on Russian soil again.

On July 14, in the midst of Finley's campaign, the Russian Parliament passed a bill that effectively bans preaching by foreign religious groups.

The bill was encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears that wealthy, experienced foreign preachers like Finley will gain too much influence over the Russian people, who are rediscovering religion after more than 70 years of atheistic Soviet rule.

"The state has been influenced by the church, and the church and the state have united to say that we are the guardians of the soul of the Russian people," Finley said.

Now Finley and his colleagues are caught in the middle of the political battle over the bill. Although Finley and a group of 100 Christian Adventists--about 20 of whom are from the Los Angeles area--will be able to finish their crusade, they may be among the last Americans to preach in Russia.

The Russian bill on religious activities, which would require foreign groups to obtain a difficult-to-obtain license before preaching on Russian soil, requires the signature of President Boris N. Yeltsin to become law.

Yeltsin, who is on vacation, is expected to sign the bill. Even if he gives in to lobbying and vetoes it, the Parliament may override him.

Already, religious and human rights organizations around the world have criticized the bill. At least four U. S senators, including Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, have dispatched letters to Yeltsin, reminding him that religious groups often bring humanitarian aid.

Finley, host of the "It Is Written" television program, said he finds it sad that Russia would discourage the presence of foreign religious groups, given the huge spiritual needs of the Russian people.

"If you have a city that's on fire and the city is burning down, you need more than one bucket of water," said Finley, a lanky man with a wide smile. "The moral deterioration is so immense in this society. The alcoholism is so high, the divorce rates are so high, the sexual promiscuity is so great, the criminal activity is so great that the Russian Orthodox Church needs all the help it can get to lift the moral character of the nation."

Finley has been trying to address Russia's lost souls through his television show, broadcast Saturday mornings with Russian translation. The show is taped at the Adventist Media Center in Newbury Park and reaches millions of viewers across the United States, Canada and Brazil as well as Russia, spokeswoman Elaine Dodd said.

"It Is Written" is far more popular with Russian audiences than American, in fact, averaging 29 million viewers weekly in Russia versus about 1 million in the United States, according to the Russian Television Network.

Finley said he could lose the right to broadcast in Russia under the bill. American Adventists are now paying almost $250,000 a year to broadcast "It Is Written" in Russia under a contract that ends in September. Finley and representatives of the Russian Television Network said they do not know if the contract will be renewed.

For now, Finley's crusade continues to draw big crowds. Most of the congregants ensconced in the yellow plastic stadium seats are elderly women, but the worshipers run the gamut from freckle-faced teen-agers to white-haired veterans.

Twice daily on the days he preaches, Finley takes to a brightly lit stage with a cherry-red grand piano. Behind him, a backdrop states the theme of the crusade: "The Biblical Path to a New Life." Finley preaches in English, with an interpreter translating expressively into Russian, although the crusade also includes sermons from Russian Adventist ministers.

"One of our major objectives is to try and inspire hope in the people, to try to find an atmosphere of positiveness," said Finley, who has been coming to Moscow since 1987.

He said the optimism he witnessed after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 is gone. "There is a very pessimistic attitude that many people have, a sullenness about them," he said. "If you go on the Metro, you don't have a lot of people that are smiling and cheerful."

The crusade aims to leave a core of new Adventists behind when it ends next week. More than 800 new members of the church will be baptized Saturday, and eight new congregations will join the four current ones in Moscow.

The crusade also gave 20,000 Muscovites a rare opportunity to improve their health through free examinations from Adventist doctors during a giant health fair.

The crowds at the crusade show that Russians are interested in religions other than Russian Orthodoxy.

"I've always been Christian, but I don't know very much," Irina Cherenina, a retired midwife, said from her front-row seat. "I'm here because I want to know something deeper, something different, to help me get through these tough times."

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