KRASNODAR, Russia--When it comes to religious freedom in the world's largest country, this southern Russian steppe city of 1 million is one of the last places to look.

The charismatic Communist governor is the picture of intolerance. In one speech, he made 60 references to zhidy, a derogatory term for Jews. Local Protestants can't rent space to worship on Sundays and so meet in a three-room apartment using a video camera and televisions. Jehovah's Witnesses are often physically and verbally abused while preaching door-to-door, their leaders say.

Krasnodar is not, by any means, a typical Russian city. Yet in the March 26 presidential election, Krasnodar showed itself to be quite average, giving Vladimir Putin a solid 52 percent of the vote from a field of 11 candidates. Nationally, Putin won nearly 53 percent, compared with 29 percent for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The election results in Krasnodar show how Putin's nationalist politics resonate deeply among voters, who in past elections have staunchly supported Communist candidates. While it's too early to tell what Putin's policies on religious freedom will be, the current situation in Krasnodar could well resemble a worst-case scenario, said one pessimistic Russian religion expert.

"It is going to get much more difficult. There are no hopes that Putin will be more civilized than his Bolshevik predecessors," said Yakov Krotov, a Moscow church historian and author, alluding to Putin's 15-year career in the KGB. "As a former Chekhist [KGB man], Putin will be more willing to use new methods against, for example, foreign Protestants."

Under a controversial 1997 religion law designed to better control the flood of new faiths into Russia, the government has considerable latitude in regulating religious groups, especially those deemed harmful to society. This year will be a telling one, as December 31 marks the final deadline for registration under the new law.

Putin himself is a self-described believer, having been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a child. In appearances with Orthodox leader Patriarch Alexy II and in remarks broadcast on Christmas Eve, Putin appeared more familiar and comfortable with his faith than other Soviet-bred politicians who have adopted Russian Orthodoxy.

Key to Putin's decisive election victory was his ability to ride the crest of Russian nationalism connected with the ongoing war against Muslim separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, located about 275 miles east of Krasnodar. Central to that nationalism and ethnic Russians' self-identity is the 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox Church, the country's dominant faith and, historically, a key defense against the Roman Catholic West and the Muslim East.

These days, a post-Soviet influx of thousands of American evangelical Protestants, Scientologists, Mormons, and others--all looking to gain converts--is perceived as just as threatening to traditional Russian values. Standing in their way here are staunchly Orthodox Cossacks and the Russian Orthodox Church itself.

The sense of embattlement is especially acute in Krasnodar, which has gained an international reputation as a bastion of intolerance largely through the excesses of Cossacks accused of terrorizing ethnic minorities and through Govenor Nikolai Kondratenko's public obsession with Jews and Zionism.

Moreover, a U.S.-based human rights group is planning a large conference here this summer. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Semitic Black Hundred group is organizing a summertime recruitment drive in the area.

According to Orthodox Father Valentin Mertzev, 62, dean of 10 city parishes, the battle has been pitched for some time. In an interview in the handsome brick Cathedral Church of St. Katherine after a morning Divine Liturgy, Mertzev described the local appearance of nontraditional faiths--including Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas--as "not a healthy phenomenon. There are very many of them now, and we find this a bit offensive."

"These missionaries are impostors and cosmopolitans who are drawing people away from the motherland," said Mertzev, an engaging, portly man with a broad face topped by black eyebrows and flowing white hair. "A church prays. Those people preach. It is pure propaganda that they use."

Mertzev said his church has no intention of acting in violation of Russia's constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. But as far as he is concerned, some nontraditional faiths are not legitimate religions.

"If you are speaking about their teaching, it is worse than Communist teaching," said Mertzev, a priest since 1960. "It is entirely secular and materialistic. They wrap it up and present it as a religion, but it is not a religion."

Despite opposition from politically powerful Russian Orthodox Church leaders and hurdles erected by local government, some of the faiths to which Mertzev is opposed are growing rapidly here.

On Election Day, a clear Sunday with the temperature hovering around freezing, about 2,000--mostly young--people gathered under a huge blue-and-white-striped tent for a lively three-hour service at the Pentecostal Bethany Church. It is Krasnodar's biggest single congregation and part of Russia's largest Pentecostal association, dating from Stalin's regime.

The Russian Orthodox Church finds the region's 12,000 Jehovah's Witnesses--who have been in the Krasnodar area since at least 1965, and in Russia itself for more than a century--particularly noxious because they deny Jesus' divinity. The Jehovah's Witnesses don't have a permanent structure for worship. Instead, they use the homes of individual members, one of whom said he hosts up to 3,000 people a week at services held from morning to night throughout the week.

Throughout Russia, access to property is one way in which minority faiths are regulated informally. Krasnodar is no exception. Jonathan Simmonds, 29, a wiry Briton with the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, an evangelical group, heads a Russian-language school for some of Krasnodar's 50 foreign Protestant missionaries. Simmonds said his Krasnodar Bible Church has had to move twice, first from a music school and then from a cafe. Now believers meet in a three-room apartment with a video feed.

"There are problems, of course, finding a place that does not cause offense," said Simmonds. "It is partly connected with the fact that these people think we are a cult or something dangerous."

Still, missionary work in Krasnodar is easier than in the neighboring Muslim Adygei Republic, where Simmonds said foreign missionaries have "had their lives threatened several times" as they collected local residents to attend services in Krasnodar.

With a recent influx of non-Russian refugees from the war in Chechnya and other regional ethnic conflicts, Krasnodar's ethnic Russians are keenly aware of their own identity, one defined by Russian Orthodoxy and local Cossack traditions. Cossack military units, each of which has a Russian Orthodox Church chaplain, are made up only of believers. Some units have been empowered by Krasnodar's local government to act as a volunteer police force. The ataman, or leader, of the area's 550,000 Cossacks, Vladimir Gromov, is also the deputy governor of the Krasnodar region. Gromov, who voted for Putin, is open in his contempt of the 1993 constitution guaranteeing religious freedom and has no tolerance for missionaries of any stripe. "We reckon that their presence here is a violation of human rights--our human rights. We don't go to America and tell you what to do," said Gromov, a stocky man with a foot-long beard and a pedantic manner that hints at his profession as a history professor. "But all the same, your human rights activists cry out, 'Oh, the poor Catholics, the poor Jehovah's Witnesses. They aren't being made to feel comfortable.'" Asked about the Jehovah's Witnesses' hopes of building a worship complex, Gromov said, "It is not going to happen," and had no further explanation. Gromov is a staunch defender of the governor, Kondratenko, by far Krasnodar's best-known citizen in the West. For political analysts and human rights activists, Kondratenko's public anti-Semitism is a worrisome phenomenon. For Gromov and Mertzev, it's a logical analysis of the current situation in Russia.

"You know, he is a reasonable man. He doesn't criticize the Jews," Mertzev said, adding: "You know well who is runnning things. It is the Masons. It is Zionism. But Zionism is not Jewry. If you are talking about anti-Semitism, it means we despise every Jew. We don't despise them. The same is true of Kondratenko. Some people just don't want to understand him."

Georgy Gonik, a professor of agriculture and leader of Krasnodar's 800-member Progressive (as Reform Judaism is called in Russia) Jewish congregation, downplays the danger of being Jewish in Krasnodar.

"Just because the governor is a genetic anti-Semite doesn't mean Jews are being sent to prison," said Gonik, who acknowledged that Kondratenko's speech is potentially dangerous. "It is an old song of the anti-Semites: There are bad Yids and good Jews. But where is the line?" Gonik, who voted for Putin, said the negative perception of Krasnodar is overblown, even in Moscow. "Last fall, 10 officials from the Russian Jewish Congress in Moscow came down. They brought their own guards and hired even more here," said Gonik, estimating that guards outnumbered delegates 3 to 1. "They carried automatic weapons, wore bulletproof vests, and had helmets on. People are still laughing."

Gonik and other Jewish leaders--such as the head of the Russian Jewish Congress branch, Yury Teitelbaum--insist that what would appear to be deep-seated anti-Semitism in Russian Orthodox, Cossack, and government circles does not translate into actual abuse of the up to 15,000 Jews in the region. Gonik cautioned, however, that were the economy to go suddenly sour, things might turn ugly.

Local neo-fascists are waiting for just such an economic downturn.

"We wouldn't just get rid of all the Jews in city government, but we would also return the land taken by the Bolsheviks," said Viktor Zelinsky, a retired Interior Ministry major who heads the "several-hundred member" Krasnodar chapter of Russian National Unity, the nation's largest neo-fascist organization.

On Sundays, several dozen of Zelinsky's men, wearing black jumpsuits with red swastika-like armbands, gather on Krasnodar's main street to distribute literature and seek recruits. Occasionally, they compete for attention with the Black Hundred, a small Moscow-based ultra-Orthodox organization that was responsible for murderous anti-Jewish pogroms before the Russian Revolution.

Their leader, Alexander Shtilmark, said the group has a "big future" in Krasnodar, where he hopes to hold a recruitment drive this summer.

Also coming this summer is Leonid Stonov, a Chicago-based leader of the Union of Councils of Soviet Jews, which is helping organize a Russia-wide human rights conference in Krasnodar, precisely because of its bad reputation. "It is as though the expression of anti-Semitism has been successfully privatized in Russia. The authorities are silent," said Stonov in a telephone interview from Chicago, adding he took little solace in a recent letter from Putin to U.S. congressmen decrying anti-Semitism. "We will see what the real answer is from Putin, not on paper but in life."
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