Anti-gay arrest in Russia: AP blows a minor incident into a major issue

Don’t read this yet. Get yourself a chair. Put down that cup of whatever you're drinking.

The Associated Press reports that -- Dun-dun-DUNN! -- Russia doesn't like gays. And especially pro-gay-rights churches.

I know, right? That might have knocked your socks off.

AP learned this terrible truth as a missionary of the Metropolitan Community Church was arrested, then ordered out of Russia. Try to get through this without fainting:

MOSCOW — Jim Mulcahy was sitting with some Russian friends, munching cookies and talking about Roman mosaics, when the Russian police came and took him away, claiming he was planning to perform a same-sex marriage. Hours later, the American pastor was ordered to leave Russia.
Mulcahy’s arrest this month in the city of Samara braids together several of Russia’s most acrimonious issues: gay rights, alleged Western meddling in Russian affairs, and missionary work by religions that don’t have state approval. It attracted particular attention because the arrest was filmed by state-controlled channel NTV, whose reports often take an especially truculent, pro-Kremlin stance.

As the Eastern Europe coordinator for the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Churches, Mulcahy said he was visiting Samara, Russia, at the invitation of a gay rights group called Avers. He says it was a mere Q&A session at their offices, but the Russian station NTV said he was "performing unspecified ceremonies for homosexuals," AP says. 

The station also said he had "converted to Orthodox Christianity," which he denies. That should have been easy to verify or falsify, just by checking with the Russian Orthodox Church, no?

But no, AP is more interested in milking this story for drama, whether the drama is there or not:

In Samara, Mulcahy said, a group of about a dozen people had just settled around a long table when four uniformed police knocked on the door. They claimed they had received a tip that Mulcahy was performing a gay marriage.
One officer took a teacup from Mulcahy’s hand and told him he had to come with them. 
The officers drove Mulcahy to a police station — threatening to handcuff him if he refused to cooperate. 

What? They took his teacup? They threatened to cuff him? The monsters!

Then the cops "interrogated Mulcahy through an interpreter, who he says spoke limited English." (Mind you, this whole account is told by Mulcahy.) More seriously, they wouldn't let him get his medication back at his hotel; he's diabetic and has prostate cancer, AP says.

But the upshot is that a judge told him to leave Russia for "unspecified religious activity." Oh, and Mulcahy was fined $30.

Never mind that Russia's opposition to gays has been the stuff of news for years and years.  Just last month for instance, two men in Moscow were arrested for holding a sympathy protest after the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando. The Guardian says that Samara has long had an anti-gay reputation. And AP itself reports that criminals in Russia are blackmailing gays by threatening to out them.

The AP story on Mulcahy does try some contexting, and it thus acknowledges the ongoing dim view of homosexuality in Russia:

The organization is one of the LGBT groups beleaguered by Russia’s growing animosity toward sexual minorities. Although homosexuality is no longer criminalized as it was in the Soviet Union, Russia in 2013 banned the spread of “propaganda” about non-traditional sexual relations to minors. Even before the law was passed, officials routinely denied permission for gay-pride rallies, and those that did take place quickly exploded into attacks by anti-gay protesters who claimed to be following the line of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church. 
Another recently passed law forbids missionaries and organizations from praying outside of churches or disseminating religious material in private homes — the law exempts the Orthodox church. 

Even that contextualization is porous, though. Who says that anti-gay protesters are following the Russian Orthodox lead? Shouldn't we heard that either from a protester or a church leader?

And if Russia increasingly opposes "sexual minorities," why has it lifted criminal penalties for homosexuality?

Still another thing: If Mulcahy supposedly turned Orthodox, and the Orthodox Church is exempt from the ban on teaching or praying outside churches, wouldn't that make Mulcahy exempt, too? Why was he arrested and expelled from Russia?

OK, maybe I've been a bit cavalier with this. I wouldn't be amused if, say, a Jew or Baptist were arrested just for trying to practice their faith. I fully get the right for freedom of expression for everyone, including those with whom I disagree.

Still, on a scale of religious persecution, the Mulcahy-Samara story rates somewhere below a 2. Cloddish cops, stringent laws, a flinty judge, those are all there. But shootings, hate speech, mass expulsions -- or throat cuttings, as happened to an elderly priest in France yesterday -- this story doesn't come close. I suspect that if it weren't about gays, it might not have gotten AP's attention at all.

Thumbnail image: Metropolitan Community Church logo. By WaDaRoQ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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