On stage in Gorky Park, Canadian evangelist Peter Youngren bounced to the beat of a rock 'n' roll hymn pounded out by his seven-piece band. "Slava Bogu!" ("Praise God!") he shouted over the fading tune.
His voice booming out of loudspeakers, Youngren exhorted a crowd of Muscovites to commit their lives to Jesus. Helpers distributed tracts saying that Youngren's prayer meetings have cured blindness, deafness and "thousands of the hopelessly ill."Youngren is one of thousands of missionaries, most prominently from the United States, who have flocked to the former Soviet Union since the lifting of restrictions on religion five years ago. In cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, the encounter between the Western newcomers and the 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox Church, which claims 60 million members, has been one of the most intense between Western and Eastern Christianity here since 10th-century Russia chose Byzantium's Orthodoxy over Rome's Ca-thol-i-cism.
It has not gone well. Behind both sides' polite expressions about ecumenism and respect for all religious groups, "there has been no real dialogue," said the Rev. Svyatoslav Shcherbakov, an Orthodox priest who watched Youn-gren's Gorky Park meeting.
"Ecumenical relations in Russia have been spoiled," said the Rev.Vsyevolod Chaplin, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.
In a political backlash against the missionaries, the Russian parliament - with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church - voted 166-1 on July 14 to pass a bill requiring foreign missionaries to get state licenses to preach, broadcast or publish here. Russian liberals and Western officials have said the bill is a step back toward state limits on basic freedoms, and the issue is complicating President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to defeat conservatives who oppose his reforms.
Yeltsin has taken no public stance on the issue. If he vetoes the bill, he will offend the Russian church, which has given him mild support - and the lopsided vote for the bill in parliament suggests that it could easily override a veto. If Yeltsin signs the bill, he may alienate liberal supporters and Western countries from which Russia seeks aid.
Members of the U.S. Congress have written to Yeltsin condemning the bill.
Since 1988, when the Soviet Union ended six decades of official atheism and religious repression, Russians and foreigners have leapt to fill the spiritual void.
Moscow's streets are a spiritual marketplace. In the Arbat, the traditional center of street life, a score of Hare Krishnas in saffron robes chant to drums and cymbals and dance past Russian women reading palms and horoscopes.
But Western - largely American - Protestants, armed with dollars and sophisticated campaign skills, have attracted the most attention. In the Oktyabr Theater, energetic Americans lead Sunday services of the nondenominational Moscow Christian Center. On downtown streets, pairs of Mormon missionaries talk to Russians. On television, evangelist Robert Schuller broadcasts from California, with Russian subtitles. This weekend, foreign and Russian Jehovah's Witnesses are planning to baptize 1,000 new Russian members in a soccer stadium.
Russia has never seen anything like the slick styles and messages of self-fulfillment offered by the Westerners. It "seems more like a rock concert than a religious service," Shcherbakov said, as he watched Youngren's rally. Echoing other Russians who criticized the Westerners' style, he added: "They are attracting people with the happy music . . . and the idea that this is from the West, where people are rich and happy in life."
The Russian church emphasizes communal worship more than the individual, "personal relationship with God" promoted by Protestant evangelists. The Russian church focuses more on God's promise of happiness after - rather than during - life on Earth.
The difference in style is more important to the Russian church than many outsiders may imagine. The church holds that its sonorous liturgy is central to achieving a close relationship to God.
On the surface, the argument between Russian Orthodox Church leaders and foreign evangelists is polite. In interviews, Orthodox priests said American evangelist Billy Graham and the U.S.-based Campus Crusade for Christ had avoided preaching against the Orthodox Church and had the church's blessing.
The Rev. Andrei Kuraev, dean of theology at the church's Orthodox University here, portrayed the planned law on missionaries as a defense against an extreme few from outside the religious mainstream. "This law would obstruct someone like David Koresh from renting a stadium and preaching in Russia," Kuraev said, referring to the leader of the Branch Davidian cult whose compound outside Waco, Texas, was destroyed by fire April 19.
Kuraev said unrestrained foreign evangelism could threaten religious peace among Russian citizens by attempting to recruit followers across ethnic lines. "Russia is not America," he said. "We have no experience of many denominations crossing ethnic lines as you do."
The Russian church and Russia's Islamic and Jewish communities "do not go to each other's ethnic groups" to evangelize, Kuraev said, "but American preachers think they should speak everywhere. In (neighboring, Islamic) Uzbekistan, this already has created conflicts."
The Rev. Vyacheslav Polosin, a parliament member who pushed the bill through, cast it as an effort to give the Russian church equality. "We must prevent foreign religious organizations from having an economic advantage over . . . the poor Russian church," he said.
Evangelists insist that they are not trying to compete with the Orthodox Church. "Their archbishops have gone on TV and said we are the enemies of the Orthodox Church," Youngren said. "We're not. The Orthodox Church has more in common with us than the Communists, and they lived with the Communists. They ought to be able to live with us."