From the banya to death threats How a Pentecostal church became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in Bryansk, Russia
As of April 9, 97 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Russia’s Bryansk region, according to the local government task force for the epidemic. That regional case count has nearly doubled in the last 24 hours, with 40 new cases recorded on April 8. All of the area’s patients are undergoing treatment in an isolated facility at Bryansk Regional Hospital No. 1. The COVID-19 task force reported that all 97 are in satisfactory condition and are receiving the care they need.
More than half of those infected belong to the Revival Evangelical Christian Church or have been in contact with members of the congregation. The Revival Church is a Pentecostal organization in the city of Bryansk. On April 7, the group and its contacts accounted for 49 of the Bryansk region’s 56 confirmed cases, according to the government task force. How many of the cases registered in the two days since can also be traced to Revival is unknown. Government workers have tracked down and tested more than 300 people connected to the church.
On April 3, a Bryansk court suspended the church’s work for 90 days and ordered its building to be sealed off. An announcement on the court’s website indicated that the penalty was instituted under Russia’s administrative law against sanitary and epidemiological violations because the church had facilitated the spread of the new coronavirus. Revival itself, on the other hand, wrote on the social media site VKontakte that the court hearing had taken place without any representatives for the defense present and that the church will be appealing what it sees as procedural violations in the case.
Two members of Revival’s congregation have been charged with violating self-isolation rules. According to the regional task force, they are a 70-year-old woman and her 50-year-old son. The pair returned to Russia from Spain on March 13, and a sanitary doctor ordered them to remain under quarantine at home. However, local authorities allege, the two nonetheless attended services and concealed the fact that they live with two other relatives from authorities. The family and four of its contacts were later diagnosed with COVID-19. The mother and son have been charged with criminal violations of sanitary and epidemiological rules. While similar cases have been brought forward in other Russian regions, theirs represents the first such charges in Bryansk.
Among those infected is Revival’s pastor, Mikhail Biryukov. “I have also been found to be a carrier, though I haven’t had any symptoms, and I feel excellent even now. Nobody in the congregation is in critical condition. Only one woman had pneumonia, but she’s feeling better now — walking, smiling,” the pastor told RBC. Biryukov is listed in the criminal case against two of his congregants as a witness and a victim. He and six of his children are currently living in the Bryansk hospital under observation.
The pastor has argued that the mother and son facing criminal charges do not belong to his church. Instead, Biryukov told Bryansk News, the pair are the mother and brother of a church member named Yevgeny Kozlov, who met them at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on March 13 and took them home. In the days following, Kozlov attended services and went to a banya, or traditional Russian bathhouse, with the pastor and other members of the congregation. On March 16, Kozlov’s mother received her quarantine order, but it did not include any restrictions on Kozlov. He was only isolated on March 18, when his mother began feeling worse and she was diagnosed with COVID-19. He himself only tested positive after two negative tests. By then, the church had already moved its services online, and its members had self-isolated. “If I had known right away about my illness, then I would never have left home, and I would have done everything possible not to spread the infection,” Kozlov assured local blogger Alexander Chernov.
Following news stories on the outbreak, church members have started receiving threats, Pastor Mikhail Biryukov said. “We’ve all suffered. Some of our members [who are sick] have been fired, just forced to sign a resignation letter. Some people have had pieces of paper taped to the doors of their apartments that say ‘Die, scum.’ There are comments on social media telling people to burn down our church. […] Biased information abounds, everything’s been turned upside down, and people are slinging a pile of mud at us. Some of them accuse us of spreading the infection on purpose. But this was an elderly woman who came back from Spain and wasn’t even part of the congregation. She actually opposed her son coming to our church,” the pastor told he tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Translation by Hilah Kohen