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20 July 2016

Has Russia banned evangelism?

A new law came into force in Russia on 20 July that poses severe threats to religious liberty. The new Religion Law effectively bans Christians, and other faith groups, from sharing their faith with non-believers.

Specifically, Chapter 24 of the law now states: "For the purposes of this federal law, missionary activity is recognised as the activity of a religious association aimed at disseminating information about its beliefs among people who are not participants (members, followers) in that religious association, with the purpose of involving these people as participants (members, followers)."

Missionary activity, described as above, is only granted narrow exemptions, primarily permitting it on religious premises, and explicitly not allowing in in residential buildings. This would significantly restrict the activity of evangelical Christians in Russia.

Bishop Bendas, from the Union of Evangelical Christians, is quoted by Forum18 as saying: "We follow the common biblical practice of house churches, in which parishioners not only come to church on Sundays, but gather in each other's flats or houses during the week, when small services may be held, to which may invited, among others, even people who are not members of the church. By my reckoning, in Moscow alone more than a thousand of these house churches gather every week."

The amendments to the law were claimed as anti-terror measures designed particularly to tackle Islamic extremism, however, their impact would be far broader, effecting evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhist groups as well as Muslims.

William Yoder, a spokesperson of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, offered a broader perspective on this new law. Writing for Evangelical Focus he commented: "It would also be inaccurate to claim that Easter Europe's evangelicals share the North American conviction on far-reaching religious freedom. Russia's repression of Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons finds quiet support in many evangelical circles."

Uncertainty remains over how zealously the new laws will be enforced, with some commentators suggesting that they would prove unworkable, or lose respect if implemented with too far reaching restrictions.

Joel Griffith from the Slavic Gospel Association told Mission Network News: "There are potentially very wide-sweeping ramifications to this law. It just depends on, again, how it is going to be enforced and that is a very huge question mark."

Paul Robinson, chief executive of Release International – a member of the Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission – said: "Let's wait and see what actually happens in terms of implementation on the ground. There is often a temptation in these situations to immediately fear the worst but, having said that, we need to pray for Russian brothers and sisters now as it's possible the doors may well be closing on the freedoms the church in Russia  currently enjoys.

"In any case it's a worrying reminder of the persecution carried out against the church in the soviet era."

Ahead of Putin signing the law Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Protestant Churches of Russia joined with other leaders to call for the law to be rejected. The joint letter, cited on Christianity Today, states: "The obligation on every believer to have a special permit to spread his or her beliefs, as well as hand out religious literature and material outside of places of worship and used structures is not only absurd and offensive, but also creates the basis for mass persecution of believers for violating these provisions.

"Soviet history shows us how many people of different faiths have been persecuted for spreading the Word of God," Protestant leaders note. "This law brings us back to a shameful past."

Thomas Bucher, general secretary of the European Evangelical Alliance said in a statement: "Russian evangelicals are not problematic and radicalised citizens and they should not be treated that way. The good news of the gospel has a positive effect on society and therefore there should be room to share this good news freely."

The European Evangelical Alliance has also issued a call for prayer, call on Christians across the continent to join with their brothers and sisters in prayer:

  • Let us pray for wisdom, hope and courage.
  • Let us pray that this new law unites Christians in new ways and express this unity and love among each other.
  • Let us pray that the Russian authorities will realise that this new law unnecessarily restricts people's freedom.
  • Let us pray that this time of trial will be used by the Lord to strengthen and grow His Church.

Image used under Creative Commons license from BRJ INC