New Religions and the New Europe Conference: Evangelicals target the CIS

EVANGELICALS from the United States have shipped at least 50 million bibles to Russia and Ukraine since the fall of Communism, and within 10 years they will become at least as important and powerful as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in the region, the LSE conference was told by an American expert.

Professor Gordon Melton, of the University of California, told the conference on new religions and the new Europe at the London School of Economics that: 'While the news is focusing on the continued problems of the government and the economy in making the transition into capitalism, the hearts of the people may be reshaped by North American and Western European evangelism.'

The consequences of such a religious change are incalculable. The Orthodox churches have been widely discredited by the collaboration of much of their leadership with Communist regimes. They are also almost everywhere identified with nationalism. The Roman Catholic churches of Eastern Europe are suffering from a shortage of priests, and - several speakers told the conference - from their long fossilisation under Communism, which had prevented them from absorbing the reforms of the second Vatican Council.

Evangelical, fundamentalist protestantism was much more efficiently organised, flexible, and better funded than either of the mainstream alternatives. It was also more willing to grasp the opportunities of technology. Most parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States now receive fundamentalist radio broadcasts 24 hours a day, Professor Melton said.

Evangelicals, he said, were rapidly training up native leaders. The Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, probably the most important fundamentalist training college in the world, had opened a permanent branch in Russia, as had five other organisations that he knew of. Tens of thousands of Russians and other Eastern Europeans had been trained to act as fundamentalist leaders since the fall of Communism. 'CoMission, a network of Christian organisations headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, has established a five-year plan to place a knowledgeable Christian teacher in every public school in the CIS,' he said.

Another group is sending 2,000 missionaries a year into the CIS and Eastern Europe; yet another plans to establish 200,000 congregations in the commonwealth before 2000.

Various newer religious movements have been targeting Eastern Europe, the conference heard. Polish students, for example, have shown a greater interest in Eastern religious ideas than in any other country outside India, even though Poland remains overwhelmingly Catholic.

Although none of the newer religions approached in importance or vigour the evangelical Christian offensive into the formerly Communist countries, they were doing their best. The Book of Mormon has recently been translated into Hungarian, Czech, and Bulgarian.