Following Russia’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelical Protestants have become the most-punished group under the country’s controversial “anti-missionary” laws.
So far this year, Russian authorities interrupted a Baptist worship service in April and charged its 71-year-old pastor with illegal missionary activity. In January, two Baptists were punished for discussing their faith at a bus stop.
The 2016 Yarovaya laws ban Russians from inviting outsiders to join their faith, even online or in their own homes, unless they have a government permit through a registered religious organization, and even then they can only evangelize in designated churches and religious sites.
Evangelicals in the former Soviet country say that even as many Christians outside the state-affiliated Russian Orthodox Church heed the restrictions, violators are more likely to face punishment when charged by authorities. The fines start at 5,000 rubles for individuals (~$75) and at least 50,000 rubles ($750) for organizations.
“Believers are afraid to carry the Word of God to the masses, because they fear fines,” Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin told Forum 18. “As ever, law enforcement agencies assume that any church activity is missionary activity, which is certainly not true.”
For some Protestant Christians, the rules have turned into a no-win situation: Even displaying the full name of their organization to comply with one provision of the law has been interpreted as a violation of another. Last year, a Baptist pastor in the Perm region was found guilty for hanging a sign reading, “House of Prayer of the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists, worship service every Sunday from 10am,” Forum 18 wrote.
“The placement … suggests that [the defendant] carries out missionary activity aimed at disseminating information about the beliefs of [the church] among other persons who are not members,” the verdict concluded. (The vast majority of Protestant congregations worship on property designated for residential use since laws restrict churches’ ability to lease or buy land for themselves.)
Russia ended up issuing a clarifying ruling last March after churches were being penalized for distributing basic information to their own flocks. The Constitutional Court decided that notices about services, ceremonies, or events only violate the anti-missionary laws if they indicate missionary activity will be a “defining feature” of the gathering.
But evangelicals still haven’t been able to avoid the penalties. Last month, authorities appeared in the middle of a Sunday worship service near Novorossiisk, along the coast of the Black Sea. According to reports, the choir stopped singing “Jesus Is My Lighthouse” as the pastor, Yury Korniyenko, disputed with officials. Two days later, he received a summons alleging illegal missionary activity.
Yevgeny Kokora, an elder in the 50-person congregation, told Radio Free Europe that they had started receiving weekly calls from investigators demanding summaries of Korniyenko’s sermons and reports of attendance. Meanwhile, their neighbors in Novorossiisk also suffered under the recent crackdown. In March, authorities tore down an “unauthorized” Pentecostal meeting house, banned the Seventh-day Adventists gathering, and deported two Mormon missionaries back to the US.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) annual report, released last week, also called out Russia’s continued violations, writing, “Religious and other communities can be financially blacklisted or liquidated, and individuals can be subjected to criminal prosecution for social media posts that are arbitrarily determined to offend the religious sensibilities of others.”
Russia made its way onto the USCIRF list for the first time in 2017, largely due to the evangelism restrictions enacted the year before.
US ambassador to Russia John Huntsman referred to the state of religious freedom in Russia as “very difficult and very troubling.”
“We’re not only seeing religious organizations shut down, we’re seeing individual members punished for their religious beliefs, which goes against everything we in the United States and a whole lot of other countries in this world stand for,” he said in a recent interview.
Earlier in the year in Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, a pair of Baptists were punished for sharing Christian materials at a bus stop. Sergei Roshchin and Valery Turkin were charged in January for not having authorization from a religious group to conduct missionary activity, but they insisted that they were merely sharing their personal beliefs. Their case failed in court and on appeal, with the judge ruling that they had invited others to a service.
According to Forum 18, Russia is increasingly prosecuting individuals for not having religious authorization, even if they do belong to an official religious group to begin with. “This is a particular problem for both independent Baptists and Council of Churches Baptists. The latter refuse on principle to seek any kind of state registration,” the site reported.
Overall, more than 56 organizations and 103 individuals were prosecuted for violations of Russia’s anti-missionary laws last year, fewer than the year before only because Jehovah’s Witnesses had been banned as an “extremist group” and are no longer publicly active in the country.