RUSSIA – Christians fear new laws will end religious freedom
Christians in Russia have just been banned from discussing their faith outside of churches and other designated places under new anti-terror laws that came into effect this week. It is now illegal to preach, teach or even share your faith in private homes, online, on social media or anywhere but recognized church buildings.
What the new laws involve
President Putin recently approved a new set of laws, passed almost unanimously by Russian MPs, that will restrict evangelization and missionary activity to officially registered Church buildings and worship areas. The anti-evangelism law carries fines up to US $780 for an individual caught sharing their faith outside church and $15,500 for an organization. Foreign visitors who violate the law face deportation.
The laws form part of new anti-terrorism legislation, and Russian officials insist they are aimed at Islamic hate preaching but Christians are worried it will affect them too. The European Evangelical Alliance says the law will restrict those who are permitted to share their faith to named members of official organisations. The laws appear to be intended to target newer, less established groups who are unregistered and may meet in private residences. They may also be an attempt to clamp down on the growing number of house churches across the country, with . around 1,000 in Moscow alone.
The laws will also affect groups considered “extremist”, which has a different meaning in Russia.For example, Jehovah’s witnesses are not considered “extreme”in the US or Europe as they are not a terrorism risk but in Russia, the tradition of conscientious objection to military service by members of the group is considered extreme by the Russian government. The laws could also impact certain groups of Mormons as well as fundamentalist, radical Muslims.
Christians are afraid
Russian Christians and rights activists and international organisations have fiercely condemned the legislation. Russia’s Council of Churches-Baptists, claim the laws will “create conditions for the repression of all Christians”. The council said in an open letter: “Any person who mentions their religious view or reflections out loud or puts them in writing, without the relevant documents, could be accused of illegal missionary activity.”
Protestant Churches of Russia also issued an open letter stating the laws were “the most draconian anti-religion bill to be proposed in Russia since Nikita Khrushchev promised to eliminate Christianity in the Soviet Union”.
One of the signatories to the letter, Mission Eurasia president Sergey Rakhuba, stated: “We don’t know yet how these laws will be implemented, but it is already clear that they are achieving their goal of creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion within society, while allowing the government to restrict freedom in violation of the Constitution and international norms.”
Sergei Ryakhovsky, the head of the Protestant churches in Russia said the new law ‘creates the basis for the mass persecution of believers’. He added “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.
Paul Robinson, chief executive of Release International said: “Our message to President Putin is please don’t confuse Christians with terrorists. Think again, sir, about this law and its consequences for ordinary Russian believers.” He went on to say: “Let’s wait and see what actually happens in terms of implementation on the ground. There is often a temptation in these situations to immediately fear the worst.” However, he added: “Having said that, we need to pray for Russian brothers and sisters now, as it’s possible the doors may well be closing on the freedoms the church in Russia currently enjoys.”
A group of Christian lawyers and some rights groups are preparing to challenge the law in the country’s Constitutional Court as they regard it as unconstitutional.
Will the laws also affect Catholics?
A missionary Catholic priest who has been serving in Russia for 24 years said he expects the laws will have a much bigger impact on small groups of Evangelicals than they will on the Catholic Church in Russia. His name cannot be revealed to protect his identity and his parish.
Catholic clergy and leaders in Russia have been careful over the years not to upset the authorities. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, following government rules, within reason, has allowed the Catholic Church to maintain a presence that would not exist if its leaders were less careful. The Catholic Church has complied with regulations that require religious organizations to be officially registered with the government but smaller Evangelical groups refuse to do so because it is against their conscience to register.
The Church also avoids overtly advertising to anyone except existing Catholics. “We’re very careful to say that our mission is to Catholics, and we are there to find the remnant of the Catholics and to serve them,” he said. “We don’t proselytize on the streets, because even if it wasn’t against the law, it would certainly be very dangerous.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Catholic Church placed advertisements in newspapers and on television to let Catholics know that parishes had been reopened, and that there were priests there to serve them. it is not allowed to advertise publicly, the priest said, the Church believes that everyone has the right to be Catholic and to seek baptism if they wish.
While the new laws favor the Russian Orthodox Church, the priest said that one should not exaggerate and compare these new laws to religious oppression under the Soviet Union. “Making churches register with the government is not like slaughtering them wholesale in the millions,” he said.