New Russian Law Prevents Evangelicals From Doing Missionary Work and Evangelism
On a recent Sunday morning, Donald Ossewaarde, a Baptist preacher from the United States, hosted an informal Bible study group at his home in Oryol, a small city 225 miles south of Moscow. Most of the dozen or so people who attended had been coming to Ossewaarde’s weekly gatherings for years, and they were looking forward to an hour of Christian song, prayer and discussion.
But as the lesson began, three police officers walked into Ossewaarde’s house. They waited silently until the lesson was over, then started questioning everyone, and they eventually insisted that Ossewaarde and his wife, Ruth, accompany them to the local police station. There, the police told Ossewaarde that a woman had filed a complaint against him, saying she was outraged that “foreign religious cultists” were allowed to operate in the city.
At a hastily arranged court hearing just hours after his arrest, a judge found Ossewaarde guilty of illegal missionary work and fined him 40,000 rubles (about $600). For Ossewaarde, a fluent Russian speaker who has lived in Oryol since 2002, the court’s ruling was shocking. “We had been perfectly free all these years to give out literature, to talk to people on the street,” he says. “People have either been friendly or indifferent.”
Not anymore. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that cracks down on missionary work and evangelism. Among other things, it mandates that people share their religious beliefs only at state-registered places of worship. Critics say the law, which was approved as part of a swath of “anti-extremism and terrorism” legislation, contradicts Russia’s post-Soviet constitution, which guarantees citizens and foreigners the right to disseminate their religious beliefs. “Soviet history shows us how many people of different faiths have been persecuted for spreading the word of God,” wrote Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Protestant Churches of Russia, in an open letter to Putin. “This law brings us back to that shameful past.”
The law comes at a time when the Kremlin is pushing a major anti-Western propaganda campaign, from accusing the U.S. and U.K. of plotting to overthrow Putin to boasting about Moscow’s ability to reduce the U.S. to “radioactive ash.” And so far, the consequences of the law have exclusively affected members of minority “foreign” religions—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants with Baptist, Pentecostal and Seventh-day Adventist roots. Believers of these religions have frequent problems gaining state permission for churches and temples, and they often have little choice but to gather informally at the homes of their congregants.
The Russian Orthodox Church, a powerful Kremlin ally that has traditionally been hostile to minority faiths, has not been affected, and Orthodox officials have dismissed criticism of the law, saying it does not prevent believers from sharing their faith. Russia’s Muslims, who make up some 10 percent of the population, seem divided on the legislation, with regional muftis split on whether it’s a gross violation of human rights or a necessary step in the fight against Islamic extremism.
Ossewaarde believes it’s the former. Two days after his conviction, he received a warning from his court-imposed lawyer, Andrey Butenko; if he and his wife chose to stay in Russia, the lawyer said, they could be in danger. Concerned that Butenko’s warning was an indirect message from the authorities, Ruth Ossewaarde flew to the United States on August 22. Donald Ossewaarde remained in Oryol to appeal his conviction.
Butenko tells Newsweek he was not acting on anyone’s orders and says his warning was inspired by genuine concern for the couple’s well-being. “All religions except traditional Russian faiths are being slowly forced out of Russia,” he says. “The state will do whatever it thinks it needs to do in order to achieve this. This is how the security forces work. If they need to, they could do something bad to him.”
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