In the previous two blogs I have addressed the confusion surrounding the anti-terrorism law passed recently in Russia which stirred up a great deal of concern, even alarm, in some religious circles both in Russia and in the West. Those most alarmed were Evangelical Protestants. According to some articles and blogs, Russia is essentially outlawing evangelism and missionary work in this country. Since I received so many queries about this law (actually the amendments to the law) from friends in America I decided to “interrupt” my regular blogs and investigate the specifics of the law. My wife consulted the Russian text of the amendments and the law as much as possible. We also watched webinars and videos produced by the Slavic Center for Law and Justice (hereafter SCLJ), which is made up primarily of Protestant leaders and Evangelical lawyers in Russia. I will summarize or review the basic points and then address the issues of religious services in apartments or homes and the issue of “foreign citizens” and their rights to do missionary activity. The following points were made earlier, but are important enough to repeat.
First, the law was drawn up quickly and is quite confusing even for those in the legal profession. At times the restrictions or clarifications seem contradictory. Thus, the members of the SCLJ emphasize the importance of careful oversight at the point of implementation.
Second, the primary point of confusion is over way the law defines “missionary activity.” I will not rehearse all the aspects of the definition again, but it is important to remember that missionary activity is defined as occuring when a religious organization or its approved representative seeks to convince others to join that organization publicly. The law does not address the issue of communicating truths about an individual’s faith either verbally or electronically. Even if a person preaches a message and calls the listeners to come to faith in Christ, this is not missionary activity according to the law.
Third, the members again reminded participates that Article 28 of the Russian Constitution gives all citizens of Russia and foreign citizens the right to confess their religion and disseminate information about that faith. Nothing in the law can be interpreted to violate the Constituion.
A major concern of the Protestant churches in Russia is the issue of meeting in apartments or homes because this is VERY common for many churches in Russia. The members of the SCLJ admitted this can be problematic in part because of the wording of the articles. Their conclusions are as follows:
- Any group can gather to study the Bible, pray, or conduct other aspects of their religious activity even if they are not registered. If they are not trying to disseminate the information in order to convince others to join the group officially they are not engaging in missionary activity.
- Article 24.1 states that if a registered group meets in a building or any premises which have been legally provided to the group, then missionary activity is “obstacle free.” Article 24.2 goes on to elaborate on the various buildings or premises or land on which these buildings have been built and states clearly there are no obstacles in the law to practicing missionary activity, i.e., attempting to convince any present who are not in the group to become a part of the group. The person responsible for handling the legal papers for the church can be the priest, pastor or any leader. The SCLJ suggested it would be best to use someone who handles the finances of the church. At a practical level this means that hypothetically if I wanted my religious group (a “religious association”) to meet in my apartment for “church services” then I would have to provide them with a legal document authorizing them essentially to “lease” my apartment. Thus, they would then qualify as a “religious premise” and missionary activity can take place “obstacle free.”
- Article 24.3 is the paragraph that caused the most consternation and the most confusion as well. It was this paragraph, or more specifically, part of the paragraph that caused many to believe the amendment to the law was forbidding the free exercise of religion in the area of evangelism. It states, “Missionary work in residential premises shall not be permitted with the exception of the cases stipulated in paragraph 2 of Article 16 hereof.” Article 16 lists the aspects of religious organizations as worship services, weddings, funerals, Communion, baptism or confirmation, etc. In other words the group can do these things because they are not, according to the law, missionary activity. Further, “residential premises” are not those premises which paragraph 2 defines as having been authorized as “religious premises.” Clearly, this part is extremely confusing, and the uproar resulting from it is not surprising. But an apartment that meets the criteria of a “religious premise” is not subject to the restrictions of a “residential premise.”
The other major issue addressed was the impact of this law on foreign citizens and missionary activity. First, a foreigner has to be invited by a registered group to be able to practice “missionary activity.” This does not mean a foreigner cannot speak in a non-registered church. If someone comes from, say, America, with a legal visa, and he or she addresses or preaches to a congregation and even calls some to become Christians if they are not, this is still not missionary activity. If the foreign preacher only addressed the issue of conversion to Christianity and did not address the specific issues of becoming members of that religious organization then it was not religious activity. Now, clearly in most Protestant denominations if someone comes to Russia from America and preaches and invites people to “get saved,” and they do he has been a missionary. But according to this law he has not, and therefore he has not violated the law.
Second, even if a foreigner is invited by a registered religious organization he or she can only practice missionary activity in the region (oblast) in which the church is registered. Now, there are “centralized churches,” with multiple locations. If a registered centralized church invites a foreign citizen to Russia, then he or she is allowed to do missionary activity in any region where that church is authorized if he has proper documentation. I would assume, for example, the Baptist Union of Russia would meet the criteria. But if the foreigner is invited by a local independent congregation the foreigner may not go outside that region. If the missioner does missionary activity outside of the region, then he or she would then most likely be deported. The presenter in the webinar said that he believes based on the studies by the lawyers of the SCLJ that one could appeal this section on the grounds it violates the Constitution. But he said at a practical level a foreigner who violates this restriction would probably be deported before the appeal was heard. He concluded with a rather humorous Russian expression, “Всё можно, только осторожно“ (“all is permissable, but be careful”). In Russian it rhymes, but the catchiness of it gets lost in translation.
Again, the law itself does not prohibit missionary activity as most believers understand missionary activity. It will require careful oversight in how it is implemented, as I stated in my last blog. Continued antagonism over the law itself I fear only increases the possibility that local authorities will look more carefully at the groups who are complaining. Further, the SCLJ members indicate that congregations must know the law and their rights. Nothing is gained by shrill misinterpretations based on sloppy and hurried reading and research. The Pentecostal group has issued a PDF document of over 70 pages to help members understand their rights and responsibilities in the light of the new law. One surprising conclusion is that it really does not matter if a group is not registered with the state as long as they understand the law and what their rights and responsibilities are.
I will conclude with some suggestions as to why I think this law and the amendments were so seriously misinterpreted.
First, as everyone stated, the law was done hurriedly, and it was not well written. Even the Russian lawyers trained in this area stated they had trouble understanding it. The members of the Duma who spoke with members from the SCLJ indicated there would be continued discussion and hopefullly clarifications.
Second, the law itself addresses terrorism. This law was not drawn up to combat the practice of religion. Religion became a part of the law because religion is being used by terrorists. My own hunch (and I have no proof) is that those writing the law were not thinking about local churches and how they carry out their mission when they wrote the law. The fuel behind the forming of this law was not the idea, “how do we stop Protestants from evangelizing Russians?” Their minds were on terrorists and how to stop them from killing Russians or convincing others to kill their countrymen for them.
Third, writers and commentators were too quick to draw conclusions without carefully reading and studying the law. I believe the Western (particularly American) writers and observers were quite anxious to “jump” on this so-called prohibition of missionary activity without careful translation and consultation with those with legal training.
Finally, I think this haste is part of the larger issue of an anxiousness on the part of Americans to present Russia in general and Vladimir Putin in particular in the worst possible light. The sub-text of some of what I read was essentially that Putin has been itching to stop the Protestant church and curry favor with Russian Orthodox leaders. Putin does consider himself Orthodox. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that about 1% of the Russian population is Protestant. Some estimate the numbers lower and one estimate (not actual compilation) went as high as 2%. The numbers have flucuated a little over the years, but not by much. Vladimir Putin is a very astute politician in my opinion. I doubt that he wakes up and worries about the roughly 1% of the population of his country that is Protestant undermining his work as president. Muslims make up about 6.5% so that gives one some idea of the nature of the religious landscape in Russia. Further, while Western writers also played the “Putin is just trying to please the Russian Orthodox” card, the CSLJ said their contact with the Orthodox leaders said they do not like the law either. This was also what Oksana and I heard from our Orthodox Public Relations contact. After 70 years of atheistic Communism dominating the country and culture, the Orthodox Church hardly wants another government that dictates what religious activities are acceptable or unacceptable. The Russian Constitution clearly supports a separation of Church and State and everyone here we talked to or read wants to keep it that way.
In my experience of living in America and Russia, and having friends and family in both countries, I think the biggest difference in perception between the two groups is over Putin. Now, there are Russians who do not like Putin at all. One only need to read The Moscow Times to discover there are publications and journalists in Russia who do not like him either. Yet the majority of Russians by far approve of Putin and the job he is doing. I realize that is not what is reported in some American periodicals. But even the Washington Post in an article earlier this year put his approval rating at 83% among Russians. Bloomberg found his approval rating at 80%, which is about where Russia Today puts him. No American politician can come anywhere close to numbers like that. Obama’s latest approval rating was considered pretty high by most observers, and it was 54%.
One does not need to be a social psychologist to understand that the old adage, “misery loves company” is true both at an individual and cultural level. I have never seeen my country, the USA, as divided as it is now politically. It was not this bad even during the Vietnam war. Everyday I read about Hillary and her e-mails, the DNC and those e-mails and the subplots, etc., and then the next story will be about the latest thing coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth. I admit this is just my perception based on observations and communications, but saying that Americans are not satisfied with the options in a gross understatement. So to look at Russia, the nation this administration has declared our greatest geo-political threat, and see the unity and support that their president has maintained is clearly upsetting to many in politics and the media in the US. They want him to fail! So they have kept beating the drum long enough about how evil he and Russia are that it has seeped down into the fabric of the culture. Putin has to be a terrible person and leader, because we all say he is. So when there is a thread of hope that he has done something that really is dastardly, that really does sound like KGB all over again, we have to jump on it. Trouble is, translating Russian and getting into the actual confusion of legal documents is not something considered essential when you’re just looking for dirt.
All the persons involved in the study concluded that the laws and amendments were not well written—Orthodox, Protestant, religiously neutral persons in the Duma even. The law, however, was about how to stop the raging wave of terrorism around the world from striking Russia. Clarity and concision were sacrificed in order to get something out quickly. Unlike the media in the U.S., the Russian media does not de-emphasize the number of terrorists attacks occuring in the world. Terrorism, not relations with the U.S., is front and center. It is unfortunate, however, that people of good intent have been misled by those who ought to work harder before they write.
The group of lawyers and religious leaders who make up the CSLJ concluded with the sound advice that believers in Russia must know the truth about the law. They have to recognize where the law is unclear and be prepared to give knowledgeable responses to local authorities. The PDF document that I mentioned earlier is one of several informative documents which have been made available to church members on the specifics of the relative issues. They ended by reminding members of the need to respond to any questions from local authorities with knowledge and courtesy. Nothing in this law can override Article 28 of the Constitution on the freedom of religion and conscience in Russia.
The last webinar was done with an English translator. Anyone interested in more specifics than I have provided should go to this site. A couple of words of caution. The trranslator did not have manuscripts and sometimes his translations seem halted and there are some mistranslations. You will see these noted in the comments on the side by those watching the webinar. A part of the problem was the first presenter would not pause long enough for the interpreter to finish. Also, the webinar is two and a half hours. I think if time is limited the first hour would be extremly helpful. Please find the link below: