Two threaten to starve, and U.S. diplomats finally pay attention.

Depressed by their three and a half years as refugees in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, two members of the two families often referred to as the Siberian Seven launched a hunger strike in December. Augustina Vashchenko, 53, began on Christmas Day, and her daughter, Lida, 30, joined her three days later.

The action was evidently inspired by the success of the hunger strike by Andrei and Yelena Sakharov that won release of their daughter-in-law to join her husband in the United States. But Sakharov is a world-renowned physicist, while the Vashchenkos are obscure laborers from a remote Siberian village—Pentecostal believers distinguished only by a passionate desire to emigrate to the West to obtain religious freedom. What worked with the Soviet authorities for Sakharov in the less-charged atmosphere before the imposition of martial law in Poland was almost certain to fail afterward with the Siberian Seven.

But the hunger strike may have at last gotten the attention of American officials, who until then had steadfastly resisted granting them any public notice—unlike the Sakharovs, who were the subject of regular State Department briefings to the press.

On January 8, Ambassador Thomas J. Watson, Jr., held a press conference at the American Embassy and discussed the Siberian Seven. The hunger strike was the result of growing frustration, he said, was beyond the embassy’s power to control, and urgently required immediate solutions. After the first week of the strike, Lida’s weight had dropped from 104 pounds to 98, and the stouter but ill Augustina had lost 9½ pounds. Other family members were threatening to join.

The embassy’s medical capability was one factor behind the ambassador’s statement that he was not in total control of events. Dr. Shadler, the embassy doctor, has a small clinic just down the hall from the seven’s cramped quarters. But if those fasting should lapse into comas, the choices were stark: allow them to die in the embassy, or admit them to a Soviet hospital for force feeding and thus remove them from embassy sanctuary.

The stress and strain of the 20-year struggle to emigrate have obviously taken their toll.”

The need for rapid solutions, belatedly acknowledged by the embassy, has been the preoccupation of some Western Christians for months and even years. The first were an embassy official, the embassy chaplain, and Kent R. Hill, a Fulbright scholar working in Moscow on his Ph.D. thesis for the University of Washington. Blahoslav and Olga Hrubý, who produce the journal Religion in Communist Dominated Areas from New York, documented the plight of the seven. A housewife, Jane Drake, went to work and organized SAVE (Society of Americans for Vashchenko Emigration).

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Other groups were formed: Research Center for Religious and Human Rights in World Societies, Friends in the West, and Christian Solidarity International. Recently, groups with more clout have joined in: the Christian Legal Society and CREED (Christian Relief Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents), backed by Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa).

These were organized last November into a Coalition to Free the Soviet Seven. It first pressed for a bill (S. 312) to grant the seven permanent resident alien status. Though passage of such a measure would not force the Soviet Union to do anything, it would give the refugees a guaranteed status with the Americans and signal the Soviets that they are of concern to the United States.

Lynn Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society, flew to Moscow during Thanksigiving week, spending time with the embassy officials and the seven.

Embassy officials had earlier approached the seven, seeking to ascertain what settlement they could negotiate with Soviet officials that the refugees would not repudiate. But the seven were suspicious.

Buzzard was able to draw up the rough draft of a document acceptable to the embassy that stated the seven would be willing to leave the embassy on two conditions: (1) that their family members at home in Chernogorsk, who had long since applied through proper channels for emigration, be safely received in the West; and (2) that they receive assurance from Soviet authorities that following normal application procedures for emigration would eventuate in permission to leave. He discussed this with the seven, brought it back to the U.S., and revised it with Hill, whom they trust.

When the two Vashchenkos began their strike. Hill and Buzzard again flew to Moscow for a full week and attempted to convince the Vashchenkos of the futility of a hunger strike then in the light of new diplomatic movement and the Polish situation. Augustina and Lida refused to budge. The family, however, did respond to the document, and, after further modification, signed it.

The mediators then tried to persuade the two to retreat from total abstinence to a partial fast if they could arrange an appointment for them with some Soviet leaders, and if an outside doctor could be permitted to visit Augustina. This was not achieved. But on January 8, word was received that the embassy had made an overture to the USSR foreign ministry and that Lida had relented and was drinking juices.

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On January 14 former President Jimmy Carter phoned the seven, appealing to them to call off their strike. They refused. But the call, surely orchestrated by the administration at the highest levels, revealed that the State Department had begun to act.

Momentum continued to build over the last several weeks with these developments:

• Buzzard and Hill conversed for 45 minutes with a Soviet legal official. They were given indications that the Kremlin might provide the family with legal advice as to its rights and emigration.

• Lady Coggan, wife of the former archbishop of Canterbury, appeared on British television on January 19, urging President Leonid Brezhnev to release the seven.

• A delegation of Swedish members of Parliament called on the Soviet embassy in Stockholm, offering to accept the seven on relatively neutral ground.

• Buzzard and Hill again flew to Moscow armed with letters of encouragement from U.S. Christian leaders. They pursued leads with the legal official and others.

• Seattle Pacific University, where Hill teaches, and Wheaton College held chapels launching a drive for signatures from students in these and other schools and their communities on a petition to President Reagan. It called for Reagan’s support with a White House press conference, a phone call to the seven, and instruction to the State Department to issue daily medical bulletins on the condition of the hunger strikers.

The feverish round of activity was prodded relentlessly by the “time bomb” of the hunger strike, as Christians of several nations exerted themselves to avert a tragedy.

North American Scene

J. Richard Chase, 51, now president of Biola University (La Mirada, Calif.), will be the sixth president of Wheaton College. Chase was chosen early in January from a slate of more than 70 names. He is a graduate of Biola, Pepperdine University, and Cornell, where he earned his Ph.D. in rhetoric and public address. Chase will assume the Wheaton post August 1. He succeeds Hudson Armerding, who has been Wheaton’s president for 17 years.

The International Christian Graduate University, established by Campus Crusade in 1977, is seeking a president. The International School of Theology was the first school of the university in operation, with schools in communications and management also planned. University buildings will be built on a 1,000-acre tract near San Diego. The presidental post is expected to be filled by July.

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William Franklin Graham III, son of evangelist Billy Graham, was ordained to the ministry at the nondenominational Grace Community Church in Tempe, Arizona. The younger Graham, 29, is president of Samaritan’s Purse and World Medical Missions. Samaritan’s Purse provides assistance to missionaries with illness or other needs; Medical Missions recruits doctors to serve short-term periods at mission hospitals. Franklin Graham said he did not know if God would call him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He thinks his father has “at least another good 10 years” of evangelism remaining.

If there is no other way to get a pornographic theater out of the neighborhood, buy the theater. That’s what the First Presbyterian Church in Concord, California, did. An X-rated movie house was adjacent to the church, but city fathers had been unable to close it during years of legal battles. Finally, church members voted to buy the theater for $425,000. After the current lease expires, the church plans to renovate the theater, connect it to the church, and use the space for religious purposes.

Songs of Zion was originally published for black churches, but the hymnbook has proven so popular with white churches that a second printing is planned. The first printing of the United Methodist hymnal sold 64,000 copies. Songs of Zion includes 36 gospel hymns and 98 spirituals, with historical accounts of the songs in black worship experience.

Sun Myung Moon can’t get his seminarychartered, but he plans to begin a newspaper in Washington this year. Officials of Moon’s Unification Church have failed to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the denial of a charter to the cult’s Barrytown, New York, seminary. Regents in New York denied a charter to the seminary, saying it was academically deficient and fiscally questionable. In Washington, Moon has purchased a building where he plans to publish the Washington Times.

Thomas Nelson Publishers, the nation’s largest publisher of Bibles, is expected to acquire Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., in April. Dodd, Mead, founded in 1839, is one of the oldest publishing companies in America. Its backlist of titles includes such distinguished authors as G. K. Chesterton, Sigmund Freud, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and Winston Churchill.

Four homes at the Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center in Santa Cruz County, California, were destroyed in the mud slides that devasted the area early last month. The center has about 400 homes and cottages on its 450 acres of mountainside property. In addition, two bridges were destroyed and walkways were damaged. Damage was also reported at other Christian camps in nearby towns.

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World Scene

Attendance at Urbana ’81 topped 14,000 this year. The Christmas-break missionary convention sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IV) has usually been held at three-year intervals. This time it was held two years after Urbana ’79, which, with 17,500 attenders, stretched the University of Illinois facilities. IV leaders are returning to the three-year cycle, but plan to hold an urban missions event, patterned after the pilot Washington ’80, in the middle of each cycle. Fresh emphases this year dealt with the local church’s role in sending missionaries, and on relief ministries.

Mission agencies are worried by President Reagan’s executive order that loosened restrictions on the U.S. intelligence community. The measure, signed in December, makes no reference to Central Intelligence Agency use of clergy or missionaries. The missions are pressing for legislation prohibiting the use of clergy, journalists, and academicians as informants. The Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board has asked Congress to forbid the CIA using agents posing as missionaries or setting up “missionary front” organizations. The board’s executive officer, R. Keith Parks, said that using a missionary cover is “morally wrong and potentially endangers the lives of missionaries in some countries.”

Two million Mexicans took flowers and prayers to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in December. They were at the Mexico City basilica to commemorate the four hundred fiftieth anniversary of the reputed miraculous appearance of the image of the Virgin on an Indian’s tunic a decade after the Spanish conquest. Mexico’s conservative Roman Catholic hierarchy used the occasion to demonstrate the power of the traditional church and to put the liberal bishops and priests, who press for social change based on a theology of liberation, on the defensive. These priests believe that worship of the Virgin and local saints serves to deepen the fatalism and passivity of Mexican Catholics—views they kept private as the crowds paraded beneath the image of the Virgin.

Unprecedented opportunities are opening up on European radio and television. In France, more than 300 independent radio stations have been established since François Mitterand’s socialist government came to power last May. Last month a law took effect that allows any nonprofit, nonpolitical group to apply for a license for available FM frequencies. For the first time, the government-controlled television network is airing programs from Christian groups. Spain is granting licenses for 200 FM stations by March; evangelicals have applied for frequencies in Barcelona and Madrid. Also for the first time, in 1982 evangelicals will have their initial brief access to state radio and television.

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A renewal movement has been launched in Switzerland’s Reformed Church. Known as the Confessing Fellowship Devoted to Christ and His Word, the group was organized in Zurich as “a Bible-based reformational renewal.” It came out swinging: not just any opinion or ideology, it said in one of its first statements, “can be sold as being Christian.” It must first be “measured against the Bible.” It also struck out at “political agitation” and “feel-good” church life that fails to bind members together in saving power.

Evangelical factions in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden are hiving off into separate diaconates, or subunits, within their dioceses. Two groups—one in Halmstad and another in Smaland—broke away last year. Dag Sandahl, deacon of the second group, says that as soon as four or five diaconates are formed they will unite in a separate synod. Both groups are calling for a return to active evangelism in the state church, and both of them oppose the ordination of women, which is the official stated policy of the church.

Turkish Muslims recently shot and killed a Syrian Orthodox neighbor who refused to move out of their village, Baksyan, as other Christians had done under pressure. No criminal proceedings were instituted, and the family’s request for an autopsy was refused by the authorities on grounds that publicity would damage the country’s image. Meanwhile, Turkey’s military rulers angered Islamic fundamentalists by banning the wearing of head scarves by female students and teachers in schools.

Some 20,000 booklets of the Old Testament story of Joseph written in Burmese were printed and are being distributed by the Bible Society of Burma. The cartoon-style format is especially popular among young people. Burma’s 32-million population is 80 percent Buddhist and less than 3 percent Christian.

The Philippine government has again leveled subversion charges against a fugitive Filipino Jesuit priest. It said documents seized from two captured urban guerrillas showed that Romeo “Archie” Intengan is a leader of a leftist plot to overthrow President Ferdinand Marcos. Jesuits denied the charges.

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Police Pressure On Romanian Christians Grows

In an endless series of arrests, interrogations, and house searches, Romanian authorities appear to be seeking to regain control of that country’s religious communities. (Already a large number of its more outspoken evangelicals have been permitted or forced to emigrate to the West. Now, over the past 12 months, there has been an expanding campaign to deal with the remaining independent elements within the country.)

In December, three Christians from Sighişoara, Klaus Wagner, and Maria and Bibia Delapeta, were given heavy sentences of six, five, and five years, respectively. It is alleged that Wagner was personally involved in the unofficial introduction of 600,000 Bibles into Romania. Since their arrest on October 1, dozens of homes have been searched, and numerous believers, mostly of German Brethren origins, have been interrogated. Interrogations have taken place throughout the country, following the uncovering of the largest Bible network in Romania in a decade. It occurs one year after the arrests in Suceava of five believers, also for Bible distribution. In both cases Russian Bibles were found among the confiscated literature. Coordination of the roundup is thought to have had Soviet assistance.

Some suspect that informants penetrated Western missions for the police. Wagner’s arrest came days after the discovery of a ship carrying 13,000 Bibles from Hamburg, resulting in the arrest of the Romanian ship captain and two members of his crew.

The harsh sentences for Wagner and the Delapeta sisters indicate that winds of change are blowing in Romania; other evidence confirms this increased severity. Many reports from the interrogations cite police beatings, sometimes severely administered. On December 17, the spokesman for the Romanian Committee for the Defense of Religious Freedom (ALRC), Ioan Teodosiu, was taken into custody and held over Christmas for a trial scheduled for late January. He faces 15 to 25 years imprisonment on threatened charges of espionage. According to emigré reports, Teodosiu was badly beaten and facially disfigured, his fate one of a string of tragedies to afflict the Teodosiu family in the past six months. In June 1981, his brother Sabin died accidentally on an electric pylon. His family accuses the authorities of foul play and has received only hostile responses to their inquiries into his death. Ioan Teodosiu’s wife suffered a miscarriage during one of her husband’s periods of interrogation before his arrest.

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Other pockets of spiritual resistance are marked out for possible police action. In Bucharest, four leading Baptist pastors, Vasile Talos, Josif Sarac, Vasile Brinzei, and Geabou Pascu, still face accusations of embezzling church funds. The fraudulent charges have been dismissed by their colleagues and church members. The real issue seems to be that the four have a good track record in affirming the Baptist tradition of church and state separation and have not accepted state interference in their church affairs. They were also close associates at one time of Josif Ton, now exiled in the United States. (Talos opened his pulpit to two Baptist preachers now in exile in the U.S., Pavel Nicolescu and Aurel Pooescu, after the Baptist union was asked to expel them from the denomination. Josif Sarac, the Bucharest Association president until relieved of his duties in November 1981, presided over the opening of 12 affiliates of the Baptist church in his region without seeking state approval.)

Finally, with the Orthodox church, there have been some signs that young priests are questioning the status quo of the church’s relations with the state. They have also dared to protest the continued imprisonment of Orthodox priest and professor Gheorghe Calciu, who is serving 10 years for his activity among Orthodox youth. On November 21, clergymen Liu Negoita, Viorel Dumitrescu, and Ambrus Cernat disappeared for three days while authorities both interrogated them and prevented them from meeting Western visitors. They are free but remain under investigation.

The time may have passed for hoping that Romanian officials will be receptive to Western intervention for Christian prisoners on humane grounds. Ironically, it is the fate of the strongest East European religious community, the Polish Catholics, that determines this. President Reagan gave Romania an extension of its most favored nation trade status with the U.S.A. recently. This is a persuasive gesture to keep the Romanians looking Westward. It may be that at present the shoe fits on the other foot, and that the West needs Romania—if not more, at least just as much. This could give the Romanian authorities the opportunity to move against those Christians they have been watching with annoyance for some time, while being assured that any economic consequences of these human rights violations will be slight.


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