Sacramento’s Slavic community celebrates 25th anniversary of arrival in United States

Sacramento’s Slavic community, the nation’s largest, is celebrating its 25th anniversary in the United States this weekend with three days of prayer, song, documentaries and testimonials.

The Slavic International Pastors’ Association, a coalition of Baptist and Pentecostal churches headquartered in the Sacramento region, is sponsoring the three-day event at Bethany Slavic Missionary Church at 9880 Jackson Rd., the largest Slavic Pentecostal congregation in the United States.

A quarter century ago, several thousand Slavic refugees left the former Soviet Union – many with Jewish visas – and settled in a refugee camp in Rome, where some met Pope John Paul II. Most weren’t Jewish; they were evangelicals who had suffered decades of persecution under the atheist communist regime, which tore down places of worship and banned organized religion.

They were granted religious refugee status during the Reagan administration and with the help of Capital Christian Center began arriving in Sacramento in 1989. Many had heard of Sacramento for years from Paul Demetrus, a Slavic pastor in Jackson broadcasting on Radio Free Europe, which aired as many as 50 of Demetrus’ programs a year to the former Soviet Union.

The religious refugees arrived with large families and and quickly learned it was a lot cheaper to rent two or three bedroom apartments in Sacramento than San Francisco.

The 25th Anniversary Celebration entitled “America Is Our New Home, Our Final Destination” reflects on the sometimes difficult assimilation process of refugees from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Belarus and other Soviet republics.

“This is the time to honor every Slavic immigrant who fled persecution under communism to become American citizens who can vote in elections and enjoy a justice system where all are equal under the law,” said Florin Ciuriuc, director of the Slavic Community Center. “These individuals took a big risk and were not afraid to face the unknown. They traveled with big families to a land of opportunities, a land of freedom, a land where the American people showed their generosity and welcomed more than 3.4 million people that left the former Soviet Union.”

They now number more than 60,000, according to U.S. census data. Slavic leaders put the number far higher – around 100,000 – because members have such large families.

Services start at 7 p.m. Friday night with English translation available. The official ceremony begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, with a documentary and a speech by Sen. Jim Nielsen R-Gerber, a good friend of the late President Reagan and a long-time supporter of refugees from the former Soviet Union.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a name spelled incorrectly. The correct spelling is Paul Demetrus.