A new Bush administration immigration policy is “devastating news” for Soviet Christians hoping to immigrate to the United States, according to evangelical groups working with persecuted Soviet Christians. “In the past, the U.S. has put out the lifeboat … and pulled [Soviet evangelicals] in,” said Serge Duss, coordinator of World Relief’s Soviet Refugee Program. “Now, not only are we not pulling them in, we’re taking away the lifeboat.”
The policy, which went into effect last month, limits the number of Soviet refugees allowed to enter the U.S. next year to 50,000, with another 20,000 to 30,000 “public interest parolees” being allowed in but not receiving refugee status or federal aid. That number falls far short of the 150,000 to 200,000 expected to apply, and next year’s quota already would be filled by those currently waiting in line.
In addition, the new policy mandates that applications for immigration be sent to Washington, D.C., and then on to the American embassy in Moscow for further screening. According to Don Hammond, World Relief’s director of USA Ministries, this effectively shuts down a European route that has allowed some 12,000 evangelicals to leave the Soviet Union since 1988. Prior to 1988, fewer than 150 had been permitted to leave.
Of late, unprecedented numbers of Soviet evangelicals have followed a complex path to America: from the Dutch embassy in Moscow, where they received an invitation to immigrate to Israel; to Vienna, where they declared the U.S. as their final destination; to Rome, where they were processed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), (CT, June 16, 1989, p. 50.) “The Vienna-Rome pipeline has been the only vehicle evangelicals have been able to use to get out of the country,” Hammond said.
Now, Hammond said, evangelicals will have to wait at the end of an embassy line that is already backlogged with 65,000 applicants. “The cold, hard fact is that few evangelical Christian refugees will be able to leave the USSR for up to two years,” he said.
Kent Hill, executive director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said the policy is particularly troubling because Soviet Christians—especially Pentecostals, who made up 95 percent of the Christian emigrant population last year—will have to wait out the emigration process with the threat of persecution. “The Pentecostals are still one of the most persecuted groups in the Soviet Union,” Hill said. “In the provinces, even under glasnost, they continue to face a lot of harassment.”
Administration officials are defending the new policy as necessary in the face of budgetary constraints and already overburdened social services structures. The State Department notes that in 1989, the administration nearly doubled the ceiling on Soviet and Eastern European refugees and requested $85 million in additional congressional aid for resettlement. “Given the rapid increase in the number of people receiving permission to leave the Soviet Union, we have proposed and will continue to propose a variety of ways to help,” a State Department spokesman said. However, officials confidentially concede they believe the U.S. is reaching an “absorption capacity” with regard to the refugees.
Hill said he is sympathetic to budgetary concerns, and he supports other Western nations sharing the burdens on this issue. However, he said, “The refugee numbers and amount in dollars that we would have to expend is a small price to pay to be consistent in our foreign policy and meet the needs of a group of people who are truly suffering.”
World Relief, Hill, and other evangelical leaders have been in discussion with the administration, urging that a special solution be found to help persecuted Soviet Christians. World Relief is attempting to establish a presence in Moscow to help Christians in the emigration process.
Hammond said they are working to set up a new consortium of denominations, local churches, and interested groups to aid some of the 10,000 Soviet refugees next year who will enter the U.S. under the “private sector initiative” and not receive federal assistance.
According to World Relief officials, one frustration has been the fact that the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., has not taken a stronger leadership role in helping to resettle the Soviet Pentecostals. While other Pentecostal denominations and individual Assemblies of God churches have been working on the issue, Hammond said the Assemblies of God leaders “haven’t been active on the denominational level.” “They’ve chosen to work more with the registered [Soviet Pentecostal] churches, and we respect that, … but we’d like them to help us more and be more active [with the unregistered emigres],” he said.
Assemblies of God General Secretary Joe Flower told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that many churches within his denomination have taken the refugees in, and the denomination itself has made financial contributions, including donations to World Relief, to help resettle the refugees. He said top denominational leaders have planned a meeting in Moscow to meet with both registered and unregistered Soviet Pentecostal leaders.
Will East German Believers Stay?
West German church leaders expect to find few churchgoing Christians among the thousands of East Germans who streamed across West German borders last fall. It is not that Christians like their situation in East Germany, says Wolfgang Polzer, an editor with IDEA, the information service of the (West) German Evangelical Alliance. But for years, pastors and their members have been strongly encouraged to stay in the country to be “salt and light.”
“The view is that a Christian’s place is wherever God puts them,” says Polzer. Those who leave face the disapproval not only of their church in East Germany, but of Christians in the West as well.
Pastors in particular are subject to penalties. In fact, for years it has been the policy of churches in West Germany not to employ East German pastors immediately. Normally, they must wait several years before they are accepted for pastoral ministry. The churches adopted this policy out of concern for the health of the East German church in order to discourage the mass exodus of church leaders.
In the face of the outgoing tidal wave of applicants for exit visas—some 600,000 this year—evangelical leaders in East Germany are publicly stating that their churches are there to stay. Mainline churches, many of which traditionally have been dissident repositories, are urging the government to adopt reforms in order to stem the flow of both emigrants and refugees.
Nevertheless, church-operated social services, like other professional agencies, are losing skilled employees to West Germany. It has been difficult to find a pediatrician, an oral surgeon, or even a plumber, they say.
In West Germany, church social-service agencies are assisting in immigrant and refugee counseling and resettlement of East Germans, as well as the tens of thousands of ethnic Germans returning to West Germany from Romania, Poland, and the Soviet Union.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.