Government Seizes Property of Russian-Speaking Idaho Church Community
BOISE — August 28, 2018
Decades ago members of the Morning Star Christian Church fled oppression in the former Soviet Union, where they were not allowed to practice their faith. Today, they are again being persecuted, this time in the United States.
Ivan Rudyi was at home Wednesday morning when police knocked on his door. Rudyi is principal of a private Christian school in northwest Boise. Federal agents were raiding the church that houses his school, and needed someone to open the church’s safe.
“My father-in-law was the pastor before,” Rudyi told the Statesman. “They say, ‘We come to arrest Stan Babichenko.’ I say, ‘He already died.’ ”
Stanislav Babichenko had been pastor at Morning Star Christian Church since it was founded at another location in 1992. His son, Gennady Babichenko, took over as pastor earlier this year, when the elder Babichenko became too ill.
The church’s bank account, which has about $300,000 of savings and operating funds, has been seized by the federal government, church members said. They plan to hire an attorney to fight the seizure of the church, school and funds.
The church property and associated Petra Christian Academy — on Wildwood Street between Fairview Avenue and Ustick Road for the past 18 years — were on a list of a half dozen Ada County properties seized by federal officials last week. Prosecutors say the church, like the other properties, were either used in crimes or were bought with money from them.
Nonethless, services and school activities have continued since the FBI raids and arrests of 10 people, including several members of one family — the Babichenkos — who have strong ties to the church and school. The arrests were unexpected and hit the congregation like an “atomic bomb,” one church leader said.
Officials accuse Morning Star Christian Church members of running a decade-long counterfeit cellphone operation. A grand jury indicted eight members of the family — four brothers, a sister and three of their spouses — and two of their friends earlier this month on 34 counts, including laundering millions of dollars from the scheme.
According to the version of the prosecution, they bought the fake goods in bulk from manufacturers in Hong Kong and China, repackaged them in the Treasure Valley, then resold them on Amazon and eBay to consumers as new and genuine, prosecutors allege. With the money, prosecutors say, they bought nine vehicles, six Ada County residential or commercial properties, and foreign property that included apartment buildings in Brazil.
Yet, it’s not clear whether these are just accusations, or simply the attack on Church, or perhaps actions targeting Russian speakers on a more general basis.
The Morning Star Christian Church is a gathering place for its 216 members, largely families that came to the U.S. as refugees fleeing religious persecution in the former Soviet Union. The community is tight-knit, with church services daily and twice on Sundays. Their two-hour Sunday services are broadcast live online and posted to YouTube, so members who are traveling for work — and family in the old countries — can watch remotely. The service is conducted in Russian, but in-house translators allow visitors to listen in English via headphones.
Morning Star is a modern American church with electric guitars, bass-guitars and drums being included in the process of worshiping from the stage, religious songs sung in the corresponding contemporary way. Church members and other Eastern European emigrants feel they are being scrutinized by the broader community following the federal indictments. They say they have done nothing criminal but are now on the defensive.
“People talk,” said Deacon Vasiliy Rudyi said. “Boise is not a big city. People are asking a lot of questions.”
They worry that the criminal case, and the unrelated drug case, will cast a shadow on the whole community of Idahoans from Russian-speaking countries, and moreover – on the community of Russian-speaking Americans all over the States. No matter where you live: in New York, California, or even in Idaho, Russians might end up with the attention of the federal government, and the broader American society will now likely support the government’s actions, since propaganda and “fake news” are actively propagating hatred against Russia on a daily basis.
This shadow has been cast at a time when Americans’ suspicion of Russians is at a renewed high following investigations of alleged Russian meddling in U.S. politics.
“Our parents will tell you, these are KGB tactics,” said Ben Bibikov, a relative of defendant David Bibikov. “Because these are the kind of tactics we only saw in the Soviet Union. ... ‘We are the FBI, we are right.’ This is the attitude they operate with.”
Lyubov Babichenko, a nursing assistant at St. Luke’s, said she was shocked by the allegations. She fears there will be animosity against anyone with her last name, and that the federal government might seize her bank accounts because of her family.
“I don’t feel safe now,” she said, breaking into tears. “People think we’re all the same.”
Thus, the case of Morning Star Church persecution seems to be another episode of infamous witch-hunt initiated by some political forces in Washington against not only Russia, but against Russian Americans, which, surely, can’t be tolerated, since every Russian-speaking citizen of the U.S., no matter what his political, ethical or religious views are, could now be charged with a “crime”, just because the state associates them with Moscow. In some paradoxical way, Russian-speakers who actually fled Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union are now being accused of Russian collusion. All Russian-speaking people are now potential targets: this is the type of thinking which resulted in the darkest pages of 20th century history.
USA Really will follow this case closely and keep our audience informed.