A brutal policy of “Evangelical Cleansing” by radical Islamic gangs in trouble-torn Chechnya forced the last handful of evangelical Christians in Grozny to flee into southern Russia for resettlement.
Open Doors with Brother Andrew, the ministry founded more than four decades ago by the Dutch-born author of “God's Smuggler,” announced that Chechnya's ongoing rash of kidnappings and brutal murders during the previous nine months prompted the action.
"This is first time in memory that almost the entire Christian population of a nation may be evacuated," said Terry Madison, US President and CEO of Open Doors, based in Santa Ana, California. "Already, the first 10 members of the Grozny Baptist Church have arrived in Krasnodar, a region of the Russian Federation along the Black Sea coast, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Others are expected to follow in the near future.
"With the exception of two men, the isolated Grozny congregation now consists of less than 100 women and children, most of them elderly women and orphans."
Madison explained that members of Grozny Baptist Church have been living in fear after the savage murder of their church leader, 65-year-old Alexander Kulakov, who was last seen alive on March 12 boarding a bus.
"Ten days later, a lady from the church saw, to her horror, his severed head displayed at a local market," said Madison. "This is the second time a church leader has been targeted. Last October the pastor, Alexey Sitnikov, 42, was abducted from the church building. The Grozny Christians are now convinced he is dead. He had been taken hostage, threatened and beaten twice before by presumed radical Islamic gangs. A search into Sitnikov's whereabouts has proved fruitless, and no ransom demands were ever made. Inquirers about his fate were finally told in mid-April, by an inside contact among the local security authorities, that the pastor had been killed during the first week after his abduction."
Madison added, "Since Kulakov's death, another Russian Christian who frequently travels into Grozny has started receiving anonymous threats over the telephone and at his home, indicating he was targeted to become the next abduction victim. It has become too dangerous for him to keep going there.
"Still another Christian leader, Baptist youth pastor Volodya Kargiev from the nearby North Ossetia capital of Vladikavkaz, has been held hostage since March 9 by Chechen captors demanding $100,000 ransom. The abductors, who sent his family a video in which the obviously manhandled youth pled for his life, reduced their ransom demands last week to $25,000."
Barbara G. Baker, a reporter for the Compass Direct News Service says, "Although subjected to spiraling violence and severe food shortages since Chechnya's debilitating war with Russia concluded in 1996, the handful of Christians had until now resisted leaving their church and homes in Grozny."
One frequent visitor to the region told Compass Direct, "Now they are eager to leave. They were ready to leave yesterday, rather than tomorrow, they said."
Baker added, "Two weeks after Sitnikov's disappearance, the Russian Baptist Union in Moscow advised the congregation to close their church and emigrate from the region. Their numbers dropped within a few months from 170 to some 100, but most of the elderly resisted a move."
One source commented, "Many of them have lived all their lives in Grozny, even though they are Russians. One of the Christians there told me their family had lived in the city for 400 years. So it's a very traumatic decision to leave."
The Grozny church transplant has been spearheaded with the financial support of two Western Christian groups, which are together funding new accommodations for a total of 67 church members to resettle as a community in Krasnodar. The first group of refugees to arrive is being housed in a large, three-story building renovated into apartments. The others soon to follow will live in buildings currently under construction, on top of pre-existing foundations on the newly purchased property.
According to Compass Direct, the April 29, 1999 kidnapping of Chechnya's chief official for religious affairs, Abuzar Sumbulatov, removed the only connecting link for the humanitarian aid projects being funneled by evangelical groups through southern Russia to remaining members of the Grozny Baptist Church.
With no subsequent ransom demands or traces found for the abducted official, Sumbulatov is assumed to have been killed. Considered a moderate Muslim and one who was outspoken in promoting religious harmony in Chechnya, the Religious Affairs Ministry chairman had expedited aid shipments of food and medicines into Grozny from Christian groups abroad.
According to Andrei Zolotov, a journalist in Moscow, "Since the armed conflict in Chechnya ended, the republic has been hit by a wave of abductions which are believed a major source of income—in the form of ransoms—not only for local warlords, but also for high-ranking Chechen government officials. Church leaders, journalists and international aid workers have been prime targets."
In a letter to contacts in London last August, Sitnikov had written: "The terrible and destructive war in our republic has left all of us who remain here with a heavy burden. Our [church] is one of God's few lights in our Islamic republic."
With the closure of the Grozny Baptist Church, only two Seventh-day Adventists and some scattered Russian Orthodox communicants are known to remain in the capital city. They too may soon be forced to leave.
Last winter, Open Doors co-workers made the dangerous journey to Grozny. They met with the believers and handed over a supply of food parcels—one for each church member. It was Alexey Sitnikov who ensured that no one went without.
Chechnya is home to the Chechens, a predominantly Sunni Muslim group. In late 1994, the Chechens announced their secession from Russia. Since then, at least 30,000 people have been killed in the ensuing war. The Russians quickly dominated Chechnya militarily, including the capital city of Grozny, sending in tens of thousands of occupying troops and patrolling with tanks and helicopters. But Russian troop morale and domestic support for the war quickly faltered, while the Chechen troops remained fiercely determined to regain their homeland.
From 1995 to early 1996, the Chechens waged a guerilla war against the Russians, attacking occupying soldiers at night, and committing bloody raids against Russian towns. The poorly equipped, ill-fed and demoralized Russian troops offered little resistance.
By February 1996, Chechen rebel leaders walked freely among the streets of the occupied Chechen farming town of Novogroznensky. Russian soldiers patrolled the area but avoided direct confrontation. In March, rebels launched a major assault on Russian troops occupying Grozny on the day before Russian military and political leaders met to discuss how to end the war.
In late March 1996, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced his peace plan for Chechnya, which boiled down to getting out of the region. Since then, all Russian military have left the area.
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Author: Dan Wooding. To get further details on the ministry of Open Doors with Brother Andrew, write to PO Box 27001, Santa Ana, CA 92799, or call them at (949) 752-6600.
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