One purpose of this blog is to relate how various aspects of life—some perhaps dramatic, most mundane—are experienced and perceived between those in my family’s two worlds of Russia and America. One important aspect of life for many of us is our faith or, if you will, our religion. So this blog and at least one more will discuss recent news about religion in Russia.
On July 6th, 2016, the President of the Russian Federation signed a federal law “About Amendments to the Federal ‘Anti-Terror Law’ and to Certain other Legislative Acts of (the) Russian Federation as Additional Counterterrorism and Public Safety Measures.” Parts of this law have introduced some changes to the law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations (from September 26, 1997). Since the end of June I’ve been receiving e-mails and Facebook messages about this law or, more specifically, about the amendments to the anti-terrorism law. Several evangelical Protestant publications and web-sites in America published articles on the changes this law would make for evangelism or “sharing one’s faith” in Russia. All the articles I received were very negative and presented this law as an attempt by Russia, particularly President Putin, to restrain the open exercise of religion in Russia for anyone but Russian Orthodox believers. They quoted several “experts” on Russia in America and some religious leaders from within Russia who were extremely critical of this law and the restraints on religious freedom.
My wife and I began looking at the web-sites here in Russia which had this law and information about it. We discovered that not all Russian Protestants here opposed it, and not all Russian Orthodox leaders supported it. Some Russian newspapers and news outlets simply did not mention the religious amendment to the law at all. Clearly the focus of this law itself is anti-terrorism. It is called the “Yarovaya Law” because Irina Yarovaya was the author of the law. The amendment was added which dealt with missionary activity by religious groups or organizations.
Given that I was being asked about this law on a regular basis and the fact that as Oksana and I studied it, it was clear there was much misinformation in the American publications, we decided to do more detailed research on it. Clearly, I could not have done this without my wife doing most of the “grunt work,” especially the detailed translation of the law. She is a native speaker of Russian who, as all who know her understand, is also completely fluent in English. I have studied Russian for about four and a half years, and there is no way I could have plowed through a small portion of the documents she has read or understand the lectures and videos and the three hour webinar she has watched. Even with her high level of understanding of Russian, she had to research certain terms and phrases, which, as we all know, is necessary when you read “legalese.” I will refrain from taking any shots at lawyers and politicians and their use of language. I will just say that I think I have a pretty good vocabulary and grasp of the English language. Yet when I read what would appear to be the simplest of (English) legal documents I am usually confused.
My point is this: You cannot do a google translation of these documents or trust a flimsy translation by someone who knows a little Russian to understand the meaning of the amendment. For example, I made a point about my uncertainty about the e-mail restrictions in a couple of posts, because we could not find the Russian text of this section. So a couple of well-meaning Americans sent me the text in Russian. The problem, however, was that the Russian text they sent, which apparently some publications had indicated dealt with the e-mails, did not even mention e-mails. The law and the language in which it is written are complex. English speaking “commentators” should tread lightly.
Therefore, I want to let the readers know our sources, in addition to the Russian text of the law, we have relied on. They are groups of Russian believers, almost exclusively Protestant and mostly Pentecostal. Their lawyers, who are Protestants as well, have released explanations of the law as well as videos of their discussions. They are predominantly Protestant lawyers who work with (not for) the Russian government. The three hour webinar I mentioned was the culmination of their discussions, and it was held on July 18, 2016.
One caveat on the make up of the group based on my personal experience. When we Americans use the word “Protestant” we are talking about a very large diverse group of Christian believers that includes many denominations and perspectives—both political and religious. Largely due to our history, Protestantism is the largest group as far as numbers in American religion. You simply do not see this diversity in Russia. I am sure that there are a number of Protestant denominations here. Nonetheless, I lived in St. Petersburg for three years and the only ones I knew of were Baptists, Pentecostals and some other evangelistic and evangelical groups like Calvary Chapel and a few other non-denominational community churches. Again, I realize my experience is limited, but it is not like you see a Methodist Church here and a Lutheran one over there and then a Presbyterian church around the corner like you do in the American South where I was raised. Also, I need to remind the reader, as I have stated earlier, my own background is Southern Baptist. I am currently a member of the Eastern Othodox Church, however. Right now, I am a member of a church in the Orthodox Chruch of America, which has historical ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Among the speakers in the videos and webinar were Sergey Ryahovsky, Director and Head Bishop of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith, a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a member of the President’s Council for Coordination with Religious Organisations,* Konstantin Bendas, the First Deputy of the Head Bishop of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith and business manager of the Union, a member of the Experts Council of the State Duma Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations, a group of SCLJ attorneys, and lawyers representing other denominations.
*The Council for Coordination with Religious Organisations is a presidential consultative body that carries out preliminary examination and drafts proposals for the President on relations between the President and religious organisations and on protecting tolerance and mutual respect in issues of freedom of conscience and religion.
All of the speakers agreed that the law was written rather hastily, with a lot of unclarities and even contradictions, leaving room for misinterpretation and potential danger of misimplementation by the local law-enforcement organs. Besides, on the day the members of Parliament voted for that particular law they had to vote on 165 other laws! So it is obvious that few had the time to read the law in its entirety. One of the speakers, however, did explain why the law was passed in such a hurry. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said. “The situation in the world is such that something has to be done to counter the acts of terror happening all around us.” He added that while this situation is not what he and the others would have desired, they had to accept the fact that terrorists have forced leaders of Russia to act in the best interests and safety of its people, and, as law-abiding citizens, they had to comply with the law. He also stated that the government expressed a willingness to modify or redact the law in the future if the implementation does not go fairly or consistent with the Russian Constituion.
The truth is that terrorism, in the minds of many nations and many people, is the biggest international threat today to world peace. Despite President Obama having mocked Mitt Romey in the 2012 campaign for saying Russia was the greatest threat to our national security, he then went on in July of 2015 and nominated Gen. Dunford, who was later confirmed as head of joint chiefs. At the hearings Dunford stated that Russia, not terrorism, was our greatest national threat. Clearly, after the latest NATO meeting this month, the administration still holds this view. It is important to remember, however, that most people in the world do not see the danger this way. Many Americans do not see it this way. Most people in the world see the inhumane murders by shooting, decapitation, bombings, etc., as the chief threat to security in the world. Even in Brussels, the city of NATO’s headquarters, they did not even know of a terroritst cell in their own city before the attack in March, 2016.
Further, the majority of these attacks are linked with religion, particularly Islam. It is a sensitive subject in the U.S.A. There is a deeply rooted belief in freedom of religion and the need to respect people of all faiths or no faith. There is also the rightly held belief that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not commit terrorist attacks. On the other hand, some point out most Germans were not Nazis and most Russians were not Bolsheviks or would have been supporters of any of the later purges during Stalin’s reign had they known about them. The fact is that Russia today, like many other countries, believes there is imminent danger coming from terrorists. Additionally, one has to address the religious dimension to this danger because so many of the murderous attacks have been done in the name of the Islamic religion. Simply saying, as Obama did, that these people are not true Muslims does not make it any less true how they see themselves.
It is also clear that many of the attacks by these terrorists either have been carried out or incited by persons from outside the country in which the acts occurred. Sometimes individuals come in and perform the evil deeds themselves or sometimes they establish contacts with persons in the target country and convince them (or a singular individual) to carry out the murderous actions. Clearly there is a religious dimension to their approach in the majority of cases. Thus, I agree that the logic behind the formation of this religious amendment to the law was based on this concern.
I’ll say a general word about the materials we have read and watched. Overall, the speakers were cautiously optimistic about the law, encouraging their fellow “brothers and sisters in Christ” not to panic, but practice caution and common sense and read the law in its entirety instead of just certain statements that are easy to misinterpret if not read without preconceived notions of what the law surely says. This caution is applicable both to Russian believers and especially to Western (primarily American) believers and writers. Writing stories about how Russia is banning Christians from missionary work in Russia may sell and be popular. Unfortunately, the popularity of these articles has come at the expense of truth.
The main problem in their opinion and certainly in mine is that many writers did not read the definition of “missionary activity” closely. They took what they understood as missionary activity by Christian believers and interpreted the restrictions in that light. This approach caused them to distort the law completely. So what does the law define as “missionary activity”?
Definition of a Missionary Activity and its 6 attributes. (with the help of the video by Konstantin Bendas; Mr. Bendas’ statements are in quotation marks).
“There are 6 attributes in the definition of the missionary activity. (The) Presence of ALL 6 attributes is what is considered a “missionary activity” by law.”
Chapter III Missionary Activity. Article 24 Content of Missionary Activity.
- Current federal law considers a missionary activity to be an activity of a religious association aimed at spreading information about their religious doctrine to people who are not members or followers of that association with the intent to get the above mentioned people involved as members or followers of the religious association; such activity is carried out either by religious association directly, or by an authorized individual or a legal representative; it is carried out publicly, with the help of mass media, internet or via any other lawful means of communication.Konstantin Bendas’s interpretations of the above passage are as follows:
- “Current federal law defines missionary activity as activity of a religious association. It has nothing to do with activities of an individual.” Therefore, it is not considered a missionary activity when an individual is sharing his or her personal religious convictions and beliefs with others (individual may or may not be a member of a religious association).This is very different from how Christians see missionary activity! In other words, if I am at work and get to talking with a collegue about matters of faith, and I explain my beliefs and tell them about what I think Christianity is, I have not engaged in missionary activity according to this law even if the person himself or herself converts to Christianity on the spot. Now, if I tell my American friends back home about this experience, they would gladly call me a missionary! If any American tells a Russian about the Christian faith then that is clearly in the minds of American believers missionary activity. According to the law, as Bendas and others would point out, I was not representing any particular religious organization. Thus, it does not qualify ACCORDING TO THIS LAW as “missionary activity.” Likewise, if I invite some Russian friends over to our apartment and we have tea, cookies and I share about my faith or we read the Bible and talk about the meaning of certain Scriptures, this is not missionary activity and is hence not forbidden by the law. So the statement that this law prohibits missionary work, evangelism, or Bible studies is clearly wrong. All the lawyers who had worked with members of the Duma are in agreement on this fact.
Nevertheless, some conclude the law does mean that one cannot have a church meeting in an apartment or explain one’s faith as a member of a particular church or denomination. I will cover that aspect of the law more fully in my next blog. In general it means that if I set forth my religious beliefs as a representative of a particular group or organization, I have to be able to show that group or organization (church) authorized me to do so. For now I simply call attention to the fact that it prohibits me from representing a group or organization (church) without authorization from that group or organization. I cannot claim to be a representative of the local Baptist church if I cannot show I am authorized by that church to represent it. The purpose here is to eliminate individuals from representing themselves as members of a particular denomination or church without actually having anything to do with that church.
Konstantin Bendas is going to release more short videos in the future that deal with the remaining attributes of the missionary activity, in particular the impact of the law on the missionary activity of foreigners in Russia and gatherings of believers in their apartments for religious activities, e.g., Bible studies, home church services, and marriage ceremonies.