Author: Victor Barousse, Eurasia Director for Global Pathway
"Crisis for the Russian Church: The Implications of Russia's new Anti-terrorism Law"
The most restrictive religious legislation since the dissolution of the Soviet Union was signed into law by Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Friday. This piece of legislation is paraded as an “anti-terrorism law”, but has provisions that will severely limit any believer's Constitutional rights. Authored by ultra-conservative lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, an outspoken critic of all things Western, the passing of this bill could potentially devastate the ongoing outreach of multitudes of Russian churches.
Of course, Russia, like the rest of the world, is concerned about the threat of Islamic terror attacks being released on their citizenry. This law increases the government's surveillance powers, stiffens the criminal penalties for minors, toughens punishments for "extremism", and severely tightens regulations on religious expression. Perhaps restricting religious activities may decrease radicalization among the Muslim populace. However, if the law is enforced as worded, the same restrictions of assembly and propagation of faith will affect every religious group, with the exception of the state-controlled Russian Orthodox Church. Evangelical churches will not be able to hold religious meetings, except in their own facility—even then they cannot try to “convert” people. The majority of Evangelical Churches do not own, but rather rent public facilities. The threat of local officials shutting down their meetings and dissolving their contracts has always loomed over every church; the “backup plan” was always the home cell meeting. Now, such meetings are illegal. Evangelism of any kind is prohibited without a prior permit by the police and any religious discussion with a non-believer is considered “Missionary Activity”. Even one-on-one conversations in a public setting, such as a small group Bible study in a cafe, for example, will be a criminal offense if a permit for assembly has not been received from the police. Churches can be fined for an individual believer's actions, with fines as high at $750 per infraction. These are just a few ramifications of the new law.
All is not bleak, however. Pastors from many areas of Russia have stated that relations with local authorities have been peaceful, even positive. Protestant churches, and Evangelicals in particular, have been enjoying a season of greater credibility and visibility on the national scene.
The Russian Orthodox Church believes they are the sole custodians of truth, with all Protestants placed in the category of "sects". However, due to the fruitful work among the needy—especially orphans, ex-convicts and those with chemical dependencies—Evangelicals have become known as pragmatic people who get things done. A few national-level Protestant leaders are regularly asked to take part in government policy meetings, and amid some very high profile scandals within the Orthodox hierarchy, the anti-Protestant rhetoric coming from the Russian Orthodox Church has toned down significantly. The question arises, is all this 'warming of official relations' between government, state-church and Evangelicals genuine, or a lulling to sleep—a calm before the storm? With the implementation of this new law, we will soon find out.
A final thought. This current crisis is reminiscent of a 1997 law which began as an attempt to rewrite the Religious Affairs statutes of the Constitution. Nationalist lawmakers and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church began drafting the law in secret; it would have rescinded the registration of the vast majority of Evangelical churches. However, word got out, (the press was more free back then) and ultimately all parties had to be invited to the table. The result was a strengthening of the status for Evangelicals. What the Devil meant for evil was turned around for the good (Genesis 50:19-20). We need to pray that this current legislation will somehow result in the Kingdom of God being further established rather than hindered, in Russia. Thousands of churches are fasting and praying throughout Russia; let us join with them.
Author: As part of his 23 years of field missionary experience, Victor lived and served for 12 years in Siberia along with his family, planting churches, launching drug rehab and other social helps ministries and founding the Eastern Siberian Bible Institute. The Barousses now serve at the Go To Nations world headquarters, overseeing Member Care. Victor travels extensively, training pastors and other ministry leaders in the nations.
Contributors: Rawie Haas and Emil Mingazhev