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Russian Protestant Leader and Former Businessman under House Arrest


Date:  2013-06-22

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

MOSCOW (ANS) -- On Russia's national evening news on June 13, viewers saw the unshaven and ailing Alexander Trofimovich Semchenko, one of Russia's best-known Protestants, opening the door of his house early that morning to law enforcement.

They were there to arrest Semchenko, who had recently suffered a mild stroke, as part of an investigation. 
The claim is that during reconstruction of the Bolshoy and Malyi Theaters between 2005 and 2007, Semchenko's company stole approximately 100 million rubles (about 33 million US dollars) from the state.

According to an article by William Yoder, of the Russian Evangelical Alliance in Moscow, Semchenko, both a church philanthropist and businessman, then spent the next 48 hours in jail.

Yoder said during that time, the police searched Semchenko's house, business and denominational offices. He is now under house arrest and wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.

Yoder said on the issue of allegedly corrupt business dealings, Protestants say only a court can untangle the complicated mess.

Yoder wrote that while Pastor Leonid Kartavenko, probably Semchenko's closest associate, told the BBC, "This is religious repression and has nothing to do with economics," he admitted he was unfamiliar with the details of the business issues involved.

Protestant condemnation of Semchenko's arrest

Yoder said Protestant observers have universally condemned the way Semchenko was arrested.

Yoder said Pastor Yuri Sipko spoke of sadism and claimed, "This is as in the days of Stalin. They (government representatives) have been humiliated, and they compensate for their humiliation by humiliating others. They are a disgrace to Russia. They have performed a medieval orgy with ultra modern means."

Sipko was president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists (RUECB) until March 2010. He and Semchenko had a harsh ending of their long term relationship in February 2008.

In spite of their differences, Sipko was willing to speak up for Semchenko. Yoder said they may not like each other much, but at least in this case they have a common adversary-the government.

After the Feb. 2008 break, Yoder said, Semch enko became bishop of a tiny Evangelical Christian denomination and formed the "All Russian Fellowship of Evangelical Christians" (VSEKh). It is a loose association of 700 congregations with some Pentecostal ties.

Yoder said there has also been a chorus of evangelical support expressing appreciation for Semchenko. Sipko spoke for many when he called him a "renowned altruist and philanthropist, a gifted leader with great vision."

Semchenko was talented enough to realize most of his dreams. Yoder said Alexey Smirnov, Sipko's successor as RUECB president, wrote that the accused "has done many good things as a Christian - not only for the church, but also in general for the well being of our country."

Differing opinions

Yoder said Protestants are divided about the real reason for the arrest.

Yoder said VSEKh and other close allies of Semchenko tend to believe that nationalist government forces have regained the upper hand in their struggle with pro Western oligarchs, and are unleashing a major campaign against Protestantism and religious freedom in general.

Kartavenko believes Semchenko has been gathering and unifying the Protestant voice, irritating the nationalist government forces.

Yoder reported he said, "They have wanted to stuff Semchenko's mouth and now they have achieved precisely that."

Under house arrest, the former businessman is forbidden to make public statements and has access only to a limited number of friends.

Yet forces within the RUECB are instead stressing economics.

Yoder said Vitaly Vlasenko stated unequivocally in an interview with Portal-Credo, "I do not believe that his religious affiliation is a cause for the present legal prosecution. I think only his commercial and business dealings are at stake."

He is sorry that Semchenko's allies interpret the current issue as a religious one.

Yoder said irregularities involving the case have reinforced suspicions that church politics are the source of the conflict. Why was only Semchenko accused? Why are not co-conspirators, who signed documents and the subcontractors who did the actual work, sitting with him in court?

Yoder said media have focused on the fact that Semchenko is a religious leader, and allowed the business issues to remain a distant second.

Yoder said Vlasenko attributes this to the media's love for scandal, not as a government directive.

Yoder commented, "It is in any case clear that the Putin administration's campaign against corruption must produce concrete results. In great contrast to (last November's) corruption scandal involving the Minister of Defence, Anatoly Serdyukov ... this case cannot damage the ruling administration."

He continued, "All Protestants are political outsiders and sacrificing a middle-level, maverick oligarch is a painless affair for the government. Attacking Semchenko also does little damage to government relations with Baptists and Lutherans, the 'most traditional' of Russia's so-called 'untraditional' Christian faiths."

In business terms, Yoder said, it is claimed that Semchenko made too much profit. That made him vulnerable to attack once the winds of political change came. They arrived after Yuri Lushkov was sacked as mayor of Moscow in September 2010.

Yoder said, "When ex business partners later demanded Semchenko return a portion of excess profits, the cash had already been donated to good causes."

Yoder said Semchenko repeatedly stressed his loyalty to the administration of Putin and Medvedev, which - along with the Russian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate - did not come to his aid in this issue.

Yoder said while Semchenko helped fund two new Orthodox churches in Moscow, he was not regarded as a good friend of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Until the downfall of his business, Semchenko had been a strong supporter of the Portal-Credo news service.

Yoder said that Portal-Credo, allied with a small, dissident Orthodox denomination, has long been a thorn in the flesh of the Moscow patriarchate.

About William Yoder

Dr. William Yoder is a US born American from Germany who lives in Belarus and works in Moscow. After a stint with the Lutherans in Russia's Kaliningrad/Königsberg enclave, Yoder has been active since late 2006 as media spokesperson for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Russian Evangelical Alliance in Moscow.

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