How would you feel if tomorrow it became illegal to send an email to your friend, inviting them to church? This is the reality that Russian believers have suddenly woken up to, as a result of new legislation which came into effect at the end of July, forbidding many forms of evangelism.
Ostensibly to combat terrorism, Russia has clamped down hard on evangelism, and made life extremely difficult for our brothers and sisters who want to share the Good News freely there. There has been a great window of opportunity for the gospel to spread since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the number of believers has greatly increased as a result – a number that includes thousands of Jewish people, many of whom have arrived in Israel already believing in Yeshua, or very open to the gospel. The many Russian-speaking Messianic Jews, and Russian-speaking congregations here in Israel are testimony to the rapid spread of the gospel that has been permitted for some golden years. But now that door seems to be closing again. We seem to be lurching back to the old Soviet era in terms of religious freedoms.
A friend now living here in Israel just wrote that police had raided her old congregation in Russia on Sunday. Neighbours had informed on them, asking the police to come and shut things down. It was an informal gathering of believers meeting for worship and fellowship, so when the police arrived demanding to see official permits and documentation, they had none to produce. They are now looking for somewhere else to meet.
It is still legal to be a Christian in Russia – or a Muslim or Buddhist or any religion for that matter – but any form of Christianity outside of the Russian Orthodox church is considered a cult. The Orthodox church is not happy about Protestants and what they consider to be “foreign” religions, even to the degree that listening to the sermons of western preachers is listed as a sin in one of the Orthodox confession guide books.
In theory, Russia is supposed to be a secular state, but informally it is really Russian Orthodox. Most Russians don’t really know what Christianity is about, as they don’t read the Bible or attend church other than at Christmas or Easter. In fact, in a poll, significantly more people indicated that they were Orthodox, rather than Christian! The Orthodox church has strong links (officially and unofficially) with the government, so the fact that most Protestant churches in Russia have been founded by western Christian missions and have connections with them one way or another, means that Christian missions and foreign non-profit organizations are perceived as a threat to the stability and security of the country. Rumors are actively spread in the media that Protestant churches are destructive sects and / or a channel for American spies. A few missionary families have been wrongly accused in spying and deported in the last couple of months.
Implications of the new law
In the wake of terror incidents and with elections looming, the Russian parliament rushed this anti-terror legislation through while it still had the power to do so. This urgency was acknowledged by the members of Parliament but it was made law anyway, despite concerns among some Muslims, Protestants, and even some in the Orthodox church. It will allow legal persecution of whatever might be considered to be “extremist” or unauthorised missionary activities (affecting the non-Orthodox churches who are much more active in evangelism), and obliges internet and phone providers to record and store for half a year all people’s phone calls and internet activity.
The law is still very vague, and could be interpreted differently by police which lends itself to bribery and corruption. It is as yet unclear what it will mean for believers, but some of the implications are that:
- Missionary organizations and churches are now obliged to give their full registration name when sharing their faith. Since the population have been bombarded with propaganda warning them about dangerous “cults” (any form of Christianity apart from the Russian Orthodox church), most will refuse to talk to a “cult member” in the street. If “cult member” fails to give the full name of his organization, he can be fined 5,000-50,000 rubles, and if they are not a citizen, they can be deported.
- Mission work can now only be done with special permission, and not in living spaces. This means that even a Bible study group at home might be restricted.
- Due to the strictness of the law, religious organizations will be afraid to issue “missionary permits” as they could be fined 1,000,000 rubles if that missionary then does something wrong.
Missionary activity gets risky again
The following are considered “Missionary Activity”:
- Inviting to a church or religious group that is not sanctioned by the State
- Distributing religious materials
- Preaching or teaching one’s faith as a group of two or more believers
- Posting information on the internet/mass media inviting to or on behalf of a particular church/group
Sharing the gospel personally could be considered missionary activity if you are seen as a representative of your church, which could lead to a fine for both you and your church if you don’t have a permit and /or don’t do it within the allowed territory, or you fail to communicate the full name of the church or organization you are part of. If found to be in breach of the new laws, citizens can be fined anything from $80-$800, the church, $1580-$15,800. and non-citizens will be fined a minimum of $480, and can be face deportation.
Officials say that the law will be used only against non-traditional religions, but in reality the government now has a tool in its hands that it can use however it wants. Please pray that the gospel would not be hindered by this new law, but would flourish all the more. Pray too for our brothers and sisters there who will be affected by the legislation – for great wisdom and protection, and that they would be encouraged to keep standing strong in their faith and witness.