Authorities in a provincial town in the Soviet Far East have arrested the pastor of a small congregation of ethnic German Pentecostalists after parents in the group took their children out of Soviet schools, sources here said.
Pastor Viktor Walter, 34, was one of three men arrested Dec. 10 in Chuguyevka, northeast of Vladivostok, near the Sea of Japan, according to travelers recently reaching Moscow.
The other two were later released but sources here said Walter, a former machinist with nine children, is still being held on charges of violating a law that prohibits organized religious education. His whereabouts is unknown, the sources said this week.
Eight Pentecostal families reportedly decided jointly to take 27 of their children out of the local schools after the youngsters reported that they had been harassed, and in some cases beaten up, by schoolmates who taunted them for their religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The parents notified authorities and claimed they could educate their children on their own. Education is compulsory in the Soviet Union, and the state takes a hard line against any attempt to take children out of school, particularly if there is a religious motive.
The Pentecostalists' decision to remove their children from school and the arrests came toward the end of a one-month hunger strike by members of the Pentecostal community, who have been pressing for almost two years for the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
But with emigration for all groups in the Soviet Union slowed to a virtual halt, the chances of a small group from an obscure town 4,000 miles from Moscow are considered dim.
Few of the approximately 30,000 Pentecostalists and Baptists who have applied to emigrate in the past 15 years have been successful.
The one celebrated exception was the Vashchenko family, from Siberia, who pushed their way past Soviet guards into the U.S. Embassy in 1978, seeking asylum. They were finally allowed to emigrate in 1983.
Estimates of the number of Pentecostalists in the Soviet Union vary from 125,000 to 300,000. Officially, 33,000 are registered with the state, but there are many more who refuse to abide by the law governing religion here.
As evangelical Christians for whom proselyting is part of their religion, Pentecostalists face special problems in encounters with militantly atheistic authorities, especially in the schools and in the military.
The Pentecostalists in Chuguyevka moved to the Far East several years ago from Soviet Central Asia where they said they were frequently harassed on account of their evangelical religion. Most of the families have been in the Soviet Union for more than two generations and many no longer speak German. But they have held onto their culture and say they want to emigrate to West Germany.
According to members of the group, their arrival in the Far East was at first welcomed because they were hard-working and kept to themselves.
But they said the harassment soon began. Among other incidents, they said that a fire bomb was lobbed into one of their houses and that authorities began to press against their religious activities, which were not registered with the state.
Sources said the children were singled out in the schools for additional atheistic education and that they began to be taunted by schoolmates who called them fascists and "brown pestilence." Recently, critical articles about the group have appeared in the local press.
In February 1983, five couples were threatened with being charged as unfit parents, which if pressed could lead to their being forcibly separated from their children, but no such charges have been brought.
Shortly after the official warning, the entire community applied to emigrate to West Germany, where they say they have invitations from relatives. When they received no reply by September 1983, they went on their first group hunger strike, which lasted 10 days.
They threatened another hunger strike in January 1984, but authorities dissuaded them, promising that in a few months they would be allowed to leave, family by family, sources said.
But in April 1984 they were told all their applications had been rejected. When they again turned in their Soviet citizenship papers, several of the men in the group and some of the women were fined about $300 each for failure to have proper documents.
Last September, the group held a second hunger strike, this time for a month. Drinking only mineral water, the average adult lost 20 pounds and one man lost 32, sources said.
As they weakened, many in the group had to stay home from work and by the time the hunger strike ended Oct. 14, they said, 24 had been fired, leaving the community with only seven working members.
By the end of their most recent month-long hunger strike, which began Nov. 15, only one of the Pentecostalists -- a refigerator repair man -- still had a job. The others were surviving on what they could grow and the few animals they kept as livestock, sources said.
When Walter and the two other community leaders were arrested on Dec. 10, police searched their homes and those of 12 others, confiscating about $400 in rubles, taking Bibles, pictures and other family belongings, sources here said. No other hunger strike is planned because the group's members are too weak, they said.