Imagine if the U.S. Congress passed a law saying that you cannot talk about your faith in your own home or anywhere else besides a church building. You can’t even send an email to your friends telling them about your home Bible study. And if you are found guilty of, say, telling your kid about your beliefs, lighting a menorah candle or spreading out a prayer rug, you’re fined $780.
That may sound outlandish, but such is life in today’s Russia. In July, President Vladimir Putin signed an anti-terror law that even got a rebuke from Edward Snowden for its overreach. Human Rights Watch reported the law was “rammed through Russian Parliament.”
What didn’t get as well reported was how the law could affect religious groups.
An English-language summation of the law is here. One outlet that’s jumped on it has been the Huffington Post, which realized quickly which group might be the most affected by these rules. It stated in July:
A new anti-terrorism law in Russia includes measures that will limit religious work in the country, calling into question the fate of Mormon missionaries currently serving there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin formally signed the legislation into effect on Thursday, which will prohibit the door-to-door evangelizing Mormon missionaries commonly do. On Friday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement saying missionaries would remain in the country but will reevaluate their strategy.
“The Church recognizes a new law will take effect in Russia on July 20, 2016 that will have an impact on missionary work. The Church will honor, sustain and obey the law,” the statement read.
Missionaries will continue to operate under the new guidelines, the statement said. And the church plans to “study and analyze the law and its impact” moving forward.
Missionaries will continue to operate in Russia under a new law that limits religious work, the church said in a statement.
Named the “Yarovaya law” after its author, United Russia member Irina Yarovaya, the package of amendments allegedly aims to crack down on potential terror activity and extremism.
Religion News Service reported that churches are defiant toward the law. Christianity Today, which was one of the first out of the blocks with original reporting on the issue, saw it as a clever move by the Russian Orthodox Church to clear the landscape of troublesome evangelical groups, many of which flooded into Russia in the days after the fall of the Soviet Union:
Proposed by United Russia party lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, the law appears to target religious groups outside the Russian Orthodox church. Because it defines missionary activities as religious practices to spread a faith beyond its members, “if that is interpreted as the Moscow Patriarchate is likely to, it will mean the Orthodox Church can go after ethnic Russians but that no other church will be allowed to,” according to Frank Goble, an expert on religious and ethnic issues in the region.
Russian nationalist identity remains tied up with the Russian Orthodox church.
Catholic News Service reported that it wasn’t going to affect Catholics, as they generally don’t proselytize outside of church walls in Russia. The Washington Post added some fresh information in September:
The Mormon church reassigned 65 missionaries who were called to serve in Russia, and is renaming others “volunteers” who will focus on community service rather than converting new members, in response to sweeping anti-terrorism legislation passed in Russia this summer that included provisions banning proselytizing in public.
Most of the other publications I found quoted each other or smaller Christian outlets that had Russian contacts. One News Now, which is part of the American Family News Network, reported in early September that a U.S. citizen who’s a Baptist minister in Russia was fined 40,000 rubles in August for conducting a worship service in his home. The Moscow Times also ran a short piece about a similar arrest of a Ukrainian.
So, what’s going on? Why was this law passed and what were the conditions that led up to it?
The Economist said the law originated after ISIS downed a Russian jetliner over Egypt a year ago, but took on a life of its own. Although this bill seems clearly aimed at Muslims, none of their spokespeople are being quoted anywhere. Same for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are growing rapidly in Russia. And as of September, Russian police had arrested two groups of foreigners: two Americans and one Ukrainian for the crime of speaking in Pentecostal churches. (If you want to read more articles -- translated from Russian -- about this law, check out this site.)
What are those in the Russian Orthodox Church saying about this? Is anyone within its ranks protesting this law? Could it affect Orthodox missionaries as well? This is a rather large hole to leave in stories on this topic. What are the Orthodox saying, period?
Then there’s the larger picture. Remember, Putin is resurrecting the KGB, so we’re going back to the good old days of the repressed ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The Yarovaya laws may be a foretaste of worse to come.
Some say they are a warm-up for the new Russian police state of the future. And so the first target are the religious folks. Outlets that reported extensively on Jewish refuseniks a few decades back seem reluctant to take this law on. This small piece is all I could find by the New York Times. Other stalwarts like Foreign Policy Review have ignored the issue.
To them I say that religious groups are the canary in the mine. Once their rights are taken away, the Russian government will move onto bigger game. Some journalists may not personally care for the religious groups but as we know, what goes on in Russia these days doesn't stay there. To ignore the crushing of one minority misses a much larger story.