New Russian laws passed to stop evangelical activities
Russian President Vladimir Putin, above, has approved a package of anti-terrorism laws that include tighter restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism.
According to this report, despite prayers and protests by religious leaders and human rights advocates, the Kremlin has announced Putin’s approval of amendments, including laws against sharing faith in homes, online, or anywhere but recognised church buildings. They come into effect on July 20.
Though opponents to the new measures hope to eventually appeal in court or elect legislators to amend them, they have begun to prepare their communities for life under the new regime which is apparently designed to give the Russian Orthodox Church greater power over all other denominations.
Protestants and religious minorities small enough to gather in homes fear they will be most affected.
Konstantin Bendas, deputy bishop of the Pentecostal Union, said:
Last month, the local police officer came to a home where a group of Pentecostals meet each Sunday. With a contented expression he told them: ‘Now they’re adopting the law I’ll drive you all out of here.’ I reckon we should now fear such zealous enforcement.
The laws, considered the country’s most restrictive measures in post-Soviet history, place broad limitations on missionary work, including preaching, teaching, and engaging in any activity designed to recruit people into a religious group.
To share their faith, citizens must secure a government permit through a registered religious organisation, and they cannot evangelise anywhere besides churches and other religious locations.
Russia’s Protestant minority – estimated around one percent of the population – prayed, fasted, and sent petitions to Putin … to no avail.
Sergey Rakhuba, President of Mission Eurasia and a former Moscow church-planter, said:
Most evangelicals – leaders from all seven denominations – have expressed concerns. They’re calling on the global Christian community to pray that Putin can intervene and God can miraculously work in this process.
In an open letter, Oleg Goncharov, spokesman for the Seventh-day Adventists’ Euro-Asia division, warned ahead of the laws’ approval:
If this legislation is approved, the religious situation in the country will grow considerably more complicated and many believers will find themselves in exile and subjected to reprisals because of our faith.
Proposed by United Russia party lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, the law appears only to target religious groups outside the Russian Orthodox church.
Because it defines missionary activities as religious practices to spread a faith beyond its members, “if that is interpreted as the Moscow Patriarchate is likely to, it will mean the Orthodox Church can go after ethnic Russians but that no other church will be allowed to,” according to Frank Goble, an expert on religious and ethnic issues in the region.
Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Protestant Churches of Russia, and several other evangelical leaders called the law a violation of religious freedom and personal conscience in a letter to Putin posted on the Russian site Portal-Credo. The letter reads, in part:
Soviet history shows us how many people of different faiths have been persecuted for spreading the Word of God. This law brings us back to a shameful past.
Stalin-era religious restrictions – including outlawing religious activity outside of Sunday services in registered churches and banning parents from teaching faith to their kids – remained on the books until the collapse of the Soviet Union, though the government enforced them only selectively.
The so-called “Big Brother” laws also introduce widespread surveillance of online activity, including requiring encrypted apps to give the government the power to decode them, and assigning stronger punishments for extremism and terrorism.
The proposal is an “attack on freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and the right to privacy that gives law enforcement unreasonably broad powers,” the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch told The Guardian.
The anti-evangelism law carries fines up to US $780 for an individual and $15,500 for an organisation. Foreign visitors who violate the law face deportation.
Russia has already moved to contain foreign missionaries. The “foreign agent” law, adopted in 2012, requires groups from abroad to file detailed paperwork and be subject to government audits and raids. Since then, the NGO sector has shrunk by a third, according to government statistics.