RUSSIA: NEW LAW WOULD IMPACT CHURCHES' OUTREACH

Religious organisations in Russia seem likely to be more restricted soon in their normal activities, especially missionary work and evangelism. In August this year the Ministry of Justice informed registered religious bodies of a draft law 'On the amendments to some federal laws aimed against illegal missionary activities'. In the opinion of the Slavic Law Centre (SLC) in Moscow this draft law contravenes the Russian Constitution as well as international treaties guaranteeing people the right to share their religious views and act in accordance with them.

The proposed amendments to the law on the freedom of conscience and religious groups prohibits ordinary believers from any form of preaching without special permission supported by suitable documents from their religious organisation. Moreover any missionary must register with the local authorities with a whole dossier of documents. Not only will workers found guilty of an offence in their missionary activities be penalised but also their society. Most surprisingly and unusually the law will prohibit any missionary activities aimed at aiding and rehabilitating people in needy circumstances. The authors of the draft law explain this control is needed to prevent missionaries proselytising.

A prominent Christian lawyer and the editor-in-chief of 'Religion and Law', Anatolii Pchelintsev, says it is very unlikely this law would stop religious bodies continuing such activities that are an essential element of their religious beliefs. They continued preaching even in the times of Soviet atheism. He thinks that if this draft law is enacted it may lead to serious civil conflict.

The official lawyer of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Ksenia Chernega, although supporting the project of the new law as a whole, sees many flaws in it that need correction. For example, any religious preaching or acts done outside church premises would now be treated as missionary activities. Thus a priest even just visiting a sick person or taking a burial would have to submit a whole file of documents to the state authorities.

Analysing the draft law, the human rights watch SOVA-Centre in Moscow states that, although it is obviously inspired by the popular myth of 'totalitarian sects' threatening society, it will affect all religious organisations in Russia. Its director, Aleksandr Verkhovskii, thinks the law is an attempt to restrict the missionary activities of believers of any religion. Unregistered religious groups would face particular difficulties in getting permission for missionary activities – they will need to provide a list of all their members in addition to a description of their religious beliefs. The draft legislation is due to go to the Russian parliament before the end of this year.

The Protestant churches in Russia are greatly concerned about the way this new law would impact them. However, believers have expressed their determination to continue sharing their faith with others even if it may bring severe persecution - like the Christian churches which suffered during the Soviet era.

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR:

* the draft amendments to the law on religion to be changed to not oppress the Christian churches, and allowing all believers to freely share their faith with others, including those in needy circumstances, without being punished for it.

* the churches to be alert to the proposed changes in the law and for the growth of solidarity and mutual support between Christian churches in Russia.

* God to guide and strengthen the Christian lawyers in Russia in protecting the rights of the believers and churches, and for the growth of peace and religious tolerance in Russia.

* a positive change of attitude towards non-traditional young Protestant churches often referred to as 'totalitarian sects' by Russian Orthodox church and state officials.

'We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,' he said.

'Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood.' Peter and the other apostles replied: 'We must obey God rather than men!' (Acts 5:28,29 NIV)

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NEW LAW IN RUSSIA WOULD IMPACT CHURCHES' OUTREACH

Religious bodies in Russia seem likely to be more restricted soon in their normal activities, especially missionary work and evangelism. In August the Ministry of Justice informed registered religious bodies of a draft law 'On the amendments to some federal laws aimed against illegal missionary activities'. The proposed law contravenes the Russian Constitution as well as international treaties guaranteeing people the right to share their religious views and act in accordance with them. Even humanitarian work in the name of Christ would be outlawed. The draft legislation is due to go to the Russian parliament before the end of this year. If enacted the law would especially threaten churches for whom outreach and evangelism is basic in their activities. Please pray that the advocacy of believers, lawyers and others will succeed in getting the oppressive nature of the proposed law changed.

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RLP guest writer Anneta Vyssotskaia serves on the WEA Religious Liberty Commission. Elizabeth Kendal, our regular researcher and writer, is currently on other RLC assignments.