Why are Slavic immigrants at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus?

In early October this year, President Donald Trump claimed that he contracted COVID-19. On the same day, the White House administration announced that the American leader was hospitalized at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. In addition, First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19 as well. Later on, the information about coronavirus cases among high-ranking officials of the president’s administration came, including positive coronavirus test of Bill Stepien, head of Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. Мembers of Slavic religious communities across America, openly expressing support for the current president and unconditionally following Trump in downplaying the pandemic, are getting infected and dying from the coronavirus.

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The first American COVID-19 case was reported on January 20, followed up by declaration of a public health emergency for the entire United States on January 31. At the same time, President Donald Trump downplayed the threat of the novel coronavirus and claimed the outbreak was under control. Later, on March 13, a national emergency was declared in the United States concerning COVID-19, just a couple days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO.

California was one of the first states, which introduced restrictive measures on March 19 by Governor Gavin Newsom through an executive order, that obliged Californians to stay at home and banned public gatherings of more than 10 people.

“State public health experts announce that gatherings with 250 people or more should be rescheduled or canceled. Smaller gatherings can proceed if organizers implement 6 feet of social distancing. Gatherings of individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 should be limited to no more than 10 people, while also following social distancing guidelines”, says official notice, published by the office of California Governor on March 11.

According to official statistics, Sacramento County is home to about 50 thousand immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union*, most of whom have traditionally settled near by Russian-speaking churches and actively attended them. According to our estimates, there are about 100 Slavic parishes in Greater Sacramento area, with a total number of parishioners up to 35,000.

According to the information of the former prisoner of Soviet camps, human rights activist Boris Perchatkin, thanks to whose activity, thousands of religious people have found a new homeland in the United States; since the end of the 80s of the last century over 500 thousand have moved from the USSR to America, many of whom have settled in the states of California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Minnesota, etc.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been discovered that many churches in America do not obey the orders of the authorities from public health, and, contrary to common sense and local laws, continued gathering for worships, thus contributing to the spread of the dangerous virus.

Since the beginning of the epidemic in California (as of December 16th of 2020) 1,671,081 were infected with COVID-19 and 21,481 deaths have been registered, according to California Department of Public Health. In Sacramento county, the number of coronavirus deaths was 711, and the number of cases approached 52,182 people.

Head of Sacramento County Department of Public Health, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, said early in April that 71 members of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church** or people associated with congregation members had been afflicted with the novel coronavirus. This outbreak was officially considered one of the larger outbreak clusters in the country at that time. Sacramento health officials said they made several attempts via phone and in person to talk to Bethany church leaders, but have been rebuffed.

“They’ve basically told us to leave them alone,” Dr. Peter Beilenson said to The Sacramento Bee. “This is extremely irresponsible and dangerous for the community.”

Bethany Slavic Missionary Church refuted this statement, denying that 71 person affiliated with the church sick of COVID-19. Church leaders accused media of misinterpretation of official information.

“These reports are believed to be inaccurate and falsely place the emphasis on this church”, reads Bethany Slavic Missionary church press-release.

“The church has not been informed that any of its parishioners have died from COVID-19 as reported by media”, says official press release, published by Bethany church on April 3rd.

On the same day church officials published their press-release, Pyotr Bortnovsky, who had been working for a long time as an audio engineer at the Bethany Church, died of COVID-19. 68-year-old Bortnovsky, who was a religious refugee from Belarus, died just two weeks after the all-American church conference, held at Bethany on March 15th. One of the church members have told “Slavic Sacramento”, that Peter died not from the coronavirus, but from a heart attack. However, as stated in Bortnovsky’s death certificate, “the heart stopped as a result of pneumonia and COVID-19”. As Bortnovsky’s widow, Tatyana, told “Slavic Sacramento”, her husband worked in the church until the last moment, and he also worked at the conference, held on March 15 in the Bethany church.

“He was always healthy, never sick. But within only a few days it [COVID-19] burned him down … ”, said Bortnovsky’s wife.

According to the widow, the church’s audio engineer ignored the precautions and did not believe in the existence of the virus. He was reluctant to hear about hospitalization even when severe symptoms began to appear.

Tatyana herself also had COVID-19, as well as other ministers and parishioners of the Bethany Church.

“This is a very dangerous disease, for a whole week I had aching bones, my body weakened, it was extremely difficult to breathe, I also had to go to the hospital…,” Tatiana Bortnovskiy shared.

Church denied organizing mass gathering in violation on COVID-19 policies, but according to information of Sacramento County Health Department, they continued to gather in home groups.

“While we know that the church as a whole has ceased to meet… we have been told by multiple sources that there are groups that continue to meet in homes, despite the public health order to not gather with anyone outside of household members. These gatherings have been directly linked to the clusters of cases in the community”, said Sacramento Public Information Officer Janna Haynes in e-mail.

According to Tatyana, she does not know for sure the place of the infection but admits that they could have become infected in the church or during home prayers’ group meetings, which were attended by sick parishioners.

Peter Bornovsky’s grave at Quiet Haven Memorial Park

Peter Bortnovsky was buried in the church cemetery.

Several pastors of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church along with the senior pastor, bishop of the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith of America, Adam Bondaruk, contracted the coronavirus back in April. Seventy-eight-year-old Adam Bondaruk stayed in the hospital for about a month, while we heard about the death of another minister, Viktor Thor. We learned about the death of Thor thanks to video, published on official Bethany Slavic Missionary church Facebook page. Meanwhile, the church questioned Health Department reports, and accused local media of falsifying the facts. However, faced with massive public attention and the real danger of the virus – it is worth saying that the authorities deliberately disclosed the name of the church, and a few days later, the administration of the religious institution decided to collaborate with the authorities. Later on, some basic information about the danger of COVID-19 and precaution measures appeared on the church’s website.

The church representatives did not respond to our e-mail about COVID-19 situation in their midst.

And then shall the end come…

Believers from Bethany (and similar churches) regularly protest at the State Capitol against vaccination of their families and children. Many protesters believe that vaccines and medicines do more harm than good: according to their faith, a sick member of the church could be healed through the prayer of a priest or congregation.

Immigrants from the former republics of the USSR have a tradition of distrusting authorities, scientific research and the press. Immediately after the coronavirus outbreak in the Sacramento region, all sorts of conspiracy ideas and theories began to spread at the speed of light, including those promoting connection of 5G technology with the spread of COVID-19, or the idea of the artificial or even fictional nature of the virus and the alleged desire of the state under the guise of a pandemic and vaccination to enslave, i.e. to implant chip into Americans for a system of electronic slavery.

Some Evangelical Christians, refugees from former USSR, are convinced that immediately after implementing digital chipping, their freedom of religion will inevitably end. In some of their statements, believers rely on the biblical book of Revelation, where John the Evangelist warns that before the coming of the Antichrist there will come a time when people “could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the Beast or the number of its name.”

The tradition of awaiting persecution is alive and carefully fostered among religious refugees and their families, that’s why some churchgoers perceived restrictive coronavirus measures as religious persecution and violation of their rights, guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Thousands of protesters against the shelter in place order imposed by California governor Gavin Newsom at the end of March, went to the State Capitol in Sacramento, asked him to end the “enslavement” of the population and, despite the danger of mass infection, demanded to open the economy, public and educational institutions and churches.

Despite numerous recommendations and even orders on the mandatory wearing of facial masks and bans on mass gatherings, many within the religious population of the Sacramento region fiercely resisted the recommendations and prohibitions of the authorities: you could hardly see anybody with mask on at the protests against quarantine. Even when Bishop Bondaruk was discharged from the hospital, some did not take precautions (despite the fact that the Sacramento County ordinance remained in effect). People tried to touch his hands, thanking God, for his salvation.

Not all religious immigrants from the Eastern Europe question the restrictive orders of the authorities, there are also those who sympathized with the actions of the California state administration and quickly switched to online broadcasting of services, providing information and material aid to their parishioners. Those churches have fairly young and bilingual pastors.

Vancouver Baptist immigrants react to the pandemic

Things played out similarly in the Pacific Northwest, where after several religious leaders got sick and died of COVID-19 many of the churches shut down in-person church meetings and began to take the COVID-19 threat seriously.

In Vancouver, Washington the big Slavic Word of Grace Bible Church, which functions under the leadership of a native of Russia, Baptist preacher Alexey Alekseevich Kolomiytsev has already paid the price. Pastor Alexey’s 90-year-old father, Alexey Ivanovich Kolomiytsev, and his assistant – church minister Vladimir Dyachenko, both have died from COVID-19 last April, according to pastor Alexey Kolomiytsev.

According to a Word of Grace Church spokesman, in the spring, many church members were ill, and at least one was in intensive care with a lung problem.

Pastor Aleksey Kolomiytsev himself contracted the coronavirus.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, shortly before his death, the aged minister Alexey Ivanovich Kolomiytsev attended ministerial conference in Southern California. The annual Shepherds’ Conference has been held by Grace Community Church in March and drew 3,500 men from around the world. Grace Community Church is led by famous baptist pastor John MacArthur, who denies the COVID-19 pandemic.

Relative of pastor Aleksey, Margarita Kolomiytseva and other members of the church had COVID-19 too.

“There was a difficult situation, many in our family and in church fell ill, I personally was diagnosed with COVID-19 as well, since I was in direct contact with my grandfather [Aleksey Ivanovich Kolomiytsev], for us it was certainly a shock …”, said Margarita.

“The source of the infection cannot be determined, so we cannot speculate about it. It is important to note that both deceased elders got sick before the quarantine was introduced statewide. This means that they moved freely, were in a variety of places and could become infected anywhere”, said the senior pastor of the Word of Grace Bible Church, Aleksey Alekseevich Kolomiytsev to “Slavic Sacramento”.

According to Kolomiytsev, his church took all the measures recommended by the government to prevent the spread of the disease among the congregation: they switched to online broadcasts, limited personal contacts, etc.

“We have no exact data regarding the number of people with COVID-19 in our church. Some people were sick, but because it was in the early stages of the epidemic, even before the quarantine was introduced and before testing became widely available, it is not known what it [coronavirus or cold] was in each case,” said the pastor who survived the coronavirus.

The leadership of the church did not deny the virus itself and its danger, followed the instructions of the authorities, and openly spoke about cases of illness in the ranks of parishioners and ministers.

Outbreaks in Pennsylvania and New York

Members of Slavic churches are falling victim to the virus not only in states such as California and Washington. Gradually, immigrants have learned about large outbreaks on the East Coast (Pennsylvania and New York).

In Philadelphia last April, the Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church Stephen Sulyk, who was appointed to this position by Pope John Paul II himself, died of coronavirus at the age of 95, according to Archeparchy of Philadelphia Ukrainian Catholic Church. The aged priest was also a member of the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Conference of US Catholic Bishops.

COVID-19 outbreaks were also reported in New York State in August, Monroe County, where authorities are investigating the spread of the pandemic among members of the Pharma Slavic Pentecostal Church. According to a press release from the Monroe County authorities, the Health Department urged everyone who attended the church on August 23 to contact the relevant authorities in order to be tested for COVID-19. Additionally, representatives of the Health Department demanded that members of the church who visited the above-mentioned service go on self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. It is reported by Monroe county health officials that 20 people who attended the church service in August, or communicated with its members, were diagnosed with the coronavirus.

New Yorkers have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, with 456,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 32,000 deaths from the disease in the state.

In August, the Onondaga County Health Department of the state released information about possible COVID-19 infections at the First Ukrainian Pentecostal Church in Syracuse, where “potential infections in church services” could have occurred.

A “potential” exposure was also announced by same county officials (Onondaga County Health Department) in another Slavic Full Gospel Church in Syracuse.

Recently we discovered a GoFundMe campaign for the treatment of Russian-speaking emigre Vasily Galanesi in Tacoma, Washington. Vasily Galanesi reportedly serves as the senior pastor of the Ukrainian Full Gospel Pentecostal Church. He is the Superintendent of Evangelical Faith Christian’s Fellowship of the State of Washington. The church office did not comment on our inquiry about the illness of the pastor. As well as the pastor himself didn’t return our phone call. A fundraising campaign for the pastor’s treatment raised over $13,000.

The list of affected churches is constantly growing. “Slavic Sacramento” continues to receive alarming reports of new outbreaks in Slavic churches across the United States.

End of October church officials of Slavic Christian Center in Tacoma, Wa. reported about senior pastor Peter Sayenko being hospitalized because of COVID-19. Peter Sayenko appears to be a Honorary Bishop of Evangelical Faith Christian’s Fellowship of the State of Washington. Last week the church reported about death of their beloved pastor.

The church representatives and Bishop did not respond to our e-mails.

Foreign information influence

As the United States entered into the quarantine period on YouTube and Facebook, numerous videos about artificial origin of COVID-19 began appearing. Some of these videos have reportedly been published by Russian bloggers and influencers, and sometimes by anonymous authors. This wave of content began to gain attention of millions of people, including Russian-speaking immigrants in U.S.

According to an expert on the influence of Russian propaganda in United States, an investigative journalist and analyst of Jamestown Foundation, Ksenia Kirillova, the spread of fake information about the coronavirus resembles the pattern of possible foreign influence to misinform new Americans nostalgic for their old homeland.

“Conspiracy myths were picked up in the Russian-speaking religious community, which, most likely, was facilitated by the careful translation of the relevant materials by Russian bloggers into Russian language. We already saw this during the previous presidential campaign, when, to the delight of the Kremlin, Donald Trump became the president of the United States,” Kirillova said.

Videos by one evangelical blogger from Sacramento, Elena Nikitskaya (who has no known links to the Russian Government), for example, are getting hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook. Nikitskaya questioned quarantine rules, calls pandemic as a ‘plandemic’ and inspires her audience “not to trust everything posted on official accounts”.

Ironically, earlier in October Nikitskaya reported in her blog, that her family was contracted with COVID-19.

The attitude of the authorities, statistics, the tendency to keep silent about infected, and emergency loans

It is nearly impossible to find out the exact number of people infected and who have died from coronavirus in religious immigrant communities. Local authorities either do not have this information or simply do not keep statistics of COVID-19 cases according to ethnic and religious criteria. Most of the representatives of the Slavic Protestant churches we interviewed either found it difficult to assess, some of them simply would not comment on media requests.

Due to the weak cooperation of Russian-speaking citizens and residents with Census Bureau, it is not possible to obtain the exact number of representatives of this population group, which is why they are not included into the category of ‘ethnic minorities’, which would allow these citizens to use special state programs.

Potential problem of following COVID-19 protocols in one of the Slavic churches of Oregon was revealed, for example, only as a result of a civil lawsuit by pastors of the New Life Missionary Church against their own senior pastor, Vasily Vakulsky. In this lawsuit, a number of pastors claim that Vakulsky usurped spiritual and administrative authority in the church, forcing them to obey his dictates. Vakulsky denied all charges and claimed that some Pentecostal leaders want to take away the church. Vakulsky wrote in a court declaration that the pastors, who filed a lawsuit against him organized church services contrary to the anti-coronavirus rules introduced by the state of Oregon.

The church administration did not respond to our e-mail requesting for comment.

Another problem is the lack of direct mechanisms for interaction between local authorities and religious immigrants and the presence of a language barrier among ethnic communities.

The City of Rancho Cordova, California, which is home to 65 thousand people (the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church located in close proximity), however, began the tradition of publishing official press releases in Russian and Ukrainian. The California Department of Health and some other cities across the country do the same.

Bethany Slavic Missionary Church

Help us to evaluate the activities of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church

It is worth noting that while the senior pastor of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church Adam Bondaruk was placed in ICU, the administration of this religious organization applied for and received from $150,000 to $350,000 in an emergency loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. “Slavic Sacramento” obtained this news from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Slavic communities sometimes have a distrust of authorities, which grew during persecution in the USSR and is fueled by many conspiracy theories, the language barrier, and political reasons.

The majority of religious refugees support the Republican Party and President Trump, because many are convinced that Trump and his Republican allies are defending Christianity in the USA. Many believe the virus is staged by the Democratic Party, which has only one reason – to harm Trump and the Republicans and, thus, to destroy Christianity.

Based on dozens interviews conducted by “Slavic Sacramento”, it appeared that the older generations are being more skeptic to secular authorities, their orders and scientific knowledge.

The younger the pastors, more likely their congregation will be open to science and outside world.

* Statistics from the United States Census Bureau from 2010-2012.

** Bethany Slavic Missionary Church is the largest Slavic Pentecostal church in the country, as church administration claims, 3,000 people are members of this congregation.

Ruslan Gurzhiy, Elena Kuznetsova | SlavicSac.com

Research supported by Fund for Investigative Journalism