RUSSIA’S “ANTI-MISSIONARY” LAW: PART 2

In my last blog I presented results of research my wife and I have done on the amendment to the Anti-Terror Law (“Yarovaya Law”) recently passed in Russia. Our sources were primarily the Russian text of the law and the reported conclusions of a large segment of primarily Protestant (Pentecostal) religious leaders and lawyers who were in conversation with government and administrative representatives while the law was being discussed. While quite a number of articles in the West indicated that the law essentially outlawed missionary (or evangelistic) efforts by non-Orthodox denominations, the group concluded this was far from an accurate reading of the law. The primary fallacy was a misunderstanding of how the government was using the phrase “missionary activity.”

The group reminded listeners that no one abolished Russia’s Federal Law (article 3) on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which states that every person has a right to have or not to have their personal religious and other convictions and to share them freely. As Konstantin Bendas said, “Therefore, the new law, by no means infringes upon our right and even responsibility as Christians to go and tell people about Christ.

The law defines missionary activity of anything done by a religious group or organization or any representative of a group or organization to persuade one who is not a member of that religious group or organization to become of part of this group. The bullets below are the summary written by the group (emphasis are those of the group).

  • It is considered to be a missionary activity when a religious association is spreading information about THEIR religious doctrine. Not just general religious theological information, but the association’s narrow denominational teaching and doctrine.

  • It is considered missionary activity only if it’s aimed at people who are not members of a religious association.

  • It is considered a missionary activity if the intent is to get the people, who are not members of a religious association, become involved as members or followers of the religious association. In other words, if in the end of an activity there is an invitation to a particular church, to a particular service, where a person can potentially become a member/follower of the association, then it does qualify as missionary activity.

  • It is repeated that it is considered a missionary activity only if it is carried out either by religious association directly, or by an individual that’s been authorized by an organization to act on their behalf, or if it is done by an organization’s legal representative.

  • It is considered missionary activity ONLY if it is carried out in public, in other words any activities inside your church building are NOT even considered missionary activities.

The definition does not mean members of a church, synagogue, or mosque cannot seek to convince non-members to join. It means that their missionary activity falls under certain restrictions.

First, the religious organization must be registered with the local government office. This point is a sensitive one for some churches within Russia and sounds unfair to many outside the country. I would say “registration” is common for most everything in Russia. The first thing I had to do upon my arrival here was to get registered as a foreigner living in Russia. I had to give my exact address and other pertinent information. In America we are debating whether it is right to require a person who votes to have a photo ID with them. In Russia, all Russian citizens from age 14 must have an internal passport―a passport that is a legal validation of your citizenship and right to reside in this country. It contains a stamp that indicates where you live (called “прописка”). You can be stopped at any time and be required to show this passport. I have never had this happen to me, but I always know when Oksana sees a policeman nearby because she stops speaking to me in English and we speak Russian! I don’t fear being stopped, quizzed, checked over, however. This may sound draconian to some Americans, but the Russian government is far more strict on the issue of legal immigration and residency than American government. The government here believes that such laws can reduce the number of crimes committed and facilitates prosecution when crimes are committed. This policy of requiring registration extends to groups in that they must be registered to indicate that the group consists of law abiding citizens or legal residents.

The position of the group of religious leaders and lawyers working with the government on this issue was that as believers they had a responsibility to obey the law of the land. While many complain about registration (and it is a pain!), the fact is that in an era when religion is being used as arm for terrorism, anyone claiming to have a group or organization which is exampt from registration probably has a better chance at illicit activity. Several participants asked why a church, if the members are law abiding citizens and wish to exercise their Chrsitian faith in an honest, forthright manner, would be opposed to registration. There are financial cost involved, as well as the time it takes, but the group believes it is better for churches to make these sacrifices given the current dangers of some religioius persons. I have read complaints by those who do not think they should have to register but I personally never got an answer as to the exact reason for their complaint.

The second requirement is that any representative of the church who seeks to “convert” a person not in the group or organization must be an authorized representative. My understanding is that this is not difficult to obtain. The Protestant pastors indicated in these meetings that they got their ID credentials as soon as their church gots its certifications. The speakers stated that it is not difficult to convey the authorization to conduct missionary activities to church members who are in good standing. The purpose of this restriction is clearly to keep individuals from misrepresenting themselves. I am relying on information I have received but never have personally observed, but I am told there are plenty of examples of members of one religious organization misrepresenting themselves. The most common example I hear is of Mormon missionaries dressing like Orthodox priests in order to obtain entry into a hospital, orphanage, aging facility or other public facilities. I was told that this kind of thing has been going on for some time. No one ever took legal action of which I am aware, but now with the advent of terrorism, misrepresentation is a far more serious matter. If a Christian or a Muslim individual wants to address another individual or group than that person must be able to show they are authorized by a registered group.

Third, the person doing the missionary activity is never allowed to attempt to persuade the person or persons outside the group to commit any illegal activity, especially activity that harms or endangers the lives of others. Any person who convinces someone to perform such acts will be held to the same level of accountability as the person performing the illegal acts. Clearly, this restriction is intended to make it clear the Russian government will regard any verbal or electronic communication that encourages violence as criminal activity. The law itself (not the religious amendment) requires internet providers to increase the length of time electronic data is stored. I believe this was the point that many (especially in the West) used to indicate one could not do missionary activity by e-mail, as if by that the Russian government would not allow one to discuss religion in e-mails. Nothing we read in the law or that the group explaining the details of the law said indicated that there was any such restriction.

As I stated in my earlier blog, everyone involved realized the law and the amendment were written and passed quickly―too quickly for a careful review. Thus, the group of religious leaders did get assurances that the law would be reviewed and revised if necessary after its implementation. They believed that the law, while not ideal, is fair and should be obeyed by believers. Nevertheless, they also expressed grave concerns that things could go very badly in some areas when it is actually implemented. That is, some local authorities and law enforcement agents could apply the law in a very unfair way. Such unfairness could result from the fact local authorities themselves do not understand the law and unknowingly misinterpret it. Given the hastiness with which the law was written even a careful reading could still result in a misreading.

Of greater concern, however, is the danger that local authorities and law enforcement agents who hold prejudices against Protestant Christians could use the law―or better “misuse” the law―to justify unfair or unlawful restrictions on believers. Thus, while the law was not written to deprive any Russian of his or her constitutional rights, some authorities may try to do just that. Therefore, the members of the religoius leadership group pledged to be extremely diligent in observing and listening for reactions as the laws are implemented. They will make sure to maintain careful oversight so that any attempts to represent the law as an excuse for depriving Russian citizens of their rights will be reported to the proper authorities.

Another, very different, tendency I have seen already are the early signs of what might popularly be called a “martyr complex” on the part of believers, especially those who are members of churches that are not registered. We have already seen evidence of the cries of “religious persecution” from this law even before it is implemented. I have expressed repeatedly in more than one blog that dealing with local bureaucracies in Russia is extremely frustrating. Anytime you deal with local authorities or bureaucrats it will be frustrating at the least. I thought perhaps it was because I was American. Now I see that those government officials treat Russians with the same condescending arrogance. I believe there will be confrontations and misunderstandings. Nevertheless, that does not mean the evangelistic Protestants are necessarily being treated differently. The government officials can often treat Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Communists, Capitalists and Hare Krishnas with the same disdain.

I would say to my Protestant friends, the Russian government is still more aware of your religious rights than the Roman government was to the early Christian believers. And yet the Apostle Paul still told the Christians in Rome to abide by the laws of the land. It was not convenient for them either. But the cries of “religious persecution” arising from the passing of this law sound very weak when one looks at what believers were experiencing in Rome then or are experiencing now at the hands of those ISIS authorities in other lands. This law is an attempt to prevent such persons from inflicting murder and violence upon the residents of Russia. It will involve government overreach I am sure. I believe it will entail some unfair treatment of Prostestant believers. The passing of this law, if read carefully and with the interpretation of good legal minds, does not justify the shrill cries both from within and especially from outside Russia.

I heard of a pastor in another Russian town say that the persecution has already started. When asked what happened, he said that he was told that if he went to another town for evangelization the cops might raid his car, frame him, and charge him with drug possession. Now, the cops had not done that. There was no hard evidence that they intended on doing so. Still the cry of religious persecution goes up. My concern is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The believers, who are unwilling to “become official,” represent the police as people who will do this kind of thing and after a while the police get tired of it and start harassing the believers.

As I write this I’ve learned in the last few days of the beheading of a priest in Normandy by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar,” the driving of a truck while firing an automatic weapon in Nice, the stabbing of a pregnant in Reutlingen, among many others that give clear evidence in the minds of many of the work of jihadists. The American administration has chosen to look for other reasons or motives. Further, they have chosen advocating a different response. As Loretta Lynch, Attorney General and Chief Law Enforcement Officer, said after the Orlando shooting, “Our most effective response to terror and to hatred is compassion, it’s unity and it’s love.” The Russian lawmakers disagree and have formulated this law as one facet of a larger plan to prevent actions such as these from occuring in Russia. Any disagreement with the Russian approach surely should be based on facts, however, and not misreadings of the law itself.

I plan to write one more blog on this subject which will deal with some practical issues of how the law impacts the carrying out of missionary activities by a religious group that meets in multi-housing complex or a private residence. I will also discuss why I do not think the motive behind this law was to restrict the growth of Protestantism and demonstrate support for Russian Orthodoxy.

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