TERRIFYING NEW PERSECUTION LAW IN RUSSIA?
Some emails and WhatsApp messages are doing the rounds, saying that “7,000 Churches [are] Fasting, Praying over Terrifying New Persecution Law”. The information in the message comes from a 2016 article on the Charisma News website (click here for original source).
And while there are some elements of truth to it, it is important to understand more of the bigger picture.
Firstly, it is important to note that the article was first published in 2016 and the law was passed in early July 2016. As the concerns resurface, it seems like someone got a hold of the article (or similar ones) without fully researching the time-frame of the situation and what has happened since then.
Secondly, even though some of the concerns in the email/WhatsApp are valid and true, most of the concerns are based on assumptions and not on factual and legal implications.
Thirdly, Christianity in Russia needs to be clearly defined – the article seems to imply that only Evangelical believers are Christians. Russia officially recognises Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as traditional religions. Nearly 20% of all Russians (including President Vladimir Putin) belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, while up to 15% are Muslim. Only 2% belong to smaller Christian denominations. It is therefore a stretch that “any discussion of God with non-believers is considered missionary activity and will be punishable.” There might be restrictions on non-registered, Evangelical churches, but Orthodox churches will continue their activities as normal.
The origin of the new laws also needs to be defined. The new laws fall under the umbrella of new ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, which prohibit the sharing of religion in private homes, online or anywhere but recognised religious buildings. Even though the new set of laws would restrict evangelisation and missionary activity to officially registered church buildings and worship areas, the law is not specifically aimed at missionaries or Evangelical churches as such. The aim is to limit terrorist groups canvassing members and meeting together.
The bill toughens punishment for acts deemed to be ‘terrorism’ and encourages all religious groups to register with the government so that visitors can be received legally and all activities could proceed as normal. Some smaller religious groups – often Evangelicals – believe it is against their conscience to register with the government and so they refuse to do so. These new laws seem to be intended to target these newer, less established groups who are unregistered and may meet in private residences.
It is true that foreign guests are not permitted to speak in churches unless they have a “work permit” from Russian authorities, but this applies to many countries in the world, including a ‘free’ country like Namibia, even if the rule is not always strictly implemented.
The Charisma News article further states: “Religious activity will no longer be permitted in private homes. Most churches in Russia meet in homes.” Furthermore, it says: “One may pray and read the Bible at home but not in the presence of a non-believing person. You will be breaking the law and be punished.” Firstly, it must be remembered that most Christians meet in Russian Orthodox churches – only Evangelical Christians meet in homes (not all). But the report is also a misinterpretation of a law that “prohibits religious gatherings in non-registered areas”, which could imply private homes but doesn’t specify homes. It also restricts “promoting religion without possessing certain documents”, which is a common law in many countries.
It is indeed sad that mission work will be limited in Russia, and prayer is indeed needed for those who seek to proclaim the message of Christ in this region, which needs the Gospel. The email (and article), however, misrepresents some facts and does not fully explain the new laws.