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A Commentary on Russia’s new anti-terror legislation. By expert William Yoder.
Despite massive lobbying by Russian Protestants, President Vladimir Putin signed off on a package of anti-terror legislation usually called the “Yarovaya Laws” on 7 July.
Highly significant for evangelicals are stipulations forbidding evangelistic efforts in public areas and restricting the practice of religion to officially-designated, registered places of worship.
Concerns were audible but hardly apocalyptic during Protestant worship services in Moscow on 10 July. At the Evangelical-Christian “Your Church” service, the congregation was invited to once more help pass out Bibles on the street during the upcoming weekend, being that it might be for the last time. The new legislation will not come into force until 20 July. “Your Church” is also one of dozens of Moscowcongregations forced to meet in rented hotel space. It remains an open issue as to whether this too will remain tolerated practice.
At Moscow’s “Second Baptist Church”, head pastor Gennadi Sergienko conceded that most questions regarding the implantation of the new laws remain unclear. But he warned the congregation against succumbing to an atmosphere of panic and hysteria. “Keep cool and carry on”, or patiently await further developments, was the essence of many Protestant statements on 10 July.
The author notes that Russian church policy continues to move simultaneously in multiple and opposing directions. Only a few weeks ago, state-funded and heavily-Baptist events commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Russian Synodal Bible drew to a close. One offshoot of the festivities is a state-approved project to distribute Bibles to all the inmates of Russian penal institutions.
Even the Ukrainian “patriot” Sergey Demidovich, a prominent Pentecostal pastor from Slaviansk, has called for restraint in the interpretation of recent events. On 10 July he warned his 8.223 Facebook followers not to participate in the ongoing information war and appealed for a rejection of hurried, premature conclusions.
This author adds that Russian evangelicals have many decades of experience in dealing with a non-sympathetic state. There have also been frequent run-ins with the state since the mid-1990s. In fact, Belarus has had restrictive legislation very similar to the “Yarovaya Laws” in force since November 2002. Despite occasional incidents, non-registered Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to meet there and Minsk’s highly-visible and Charismatic “New Life” congregation keeps on meeting - illegally - in a rebuilt cow barn. Humanitarian work and evangelistic efforts continue.
Far-flung Russia will hardly be more “successful” regarding implementation of its new laws. Konstantin Bendas, deputy head bishop of the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), notes that over a thousand Pentecostal house groups are meeting alone in Moscow. Yet, sadly, a complex legislation of repression is now in place and could be put into practice if ever the need arises. That “need” would arise as a result of greatly-heightened East-West tensions – tensions which are also very much contingent upon Western behaviour. Western citizens can do something about this.
It would also be inaccurate to claim that Eastern Europe’s evangelicals share the North American conviction on far-reaching religious freedom.Russia’s repression of Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons finds quiet support in many evangelical circles. Ukrainian protests following the decree to expel US-pastor James Mulcahy from Samara/Volga and Russia on 9 July were short-lived. The following day, Samara Baptists released a statement distancing themselves from him. Mulcahy, who has US-Orthodox connections, represents the largely homosexual “Metropolitan Community Church” and was, according to some reports, informally marrying gay couples whilst a tourist in Russia. Ukrainian and Russian evangelicals – along with the Russian government - are together on this one, united in their approval of the expulsion of a gay preacher. They harbour a joint world view at odds with the West’s liberal, Hillary-Clinton-style mainstream.
One should also remember that evangelicals are not the primary target of this “anti-terrorist” legislation. Russia has roughly 20 million Muslim citizens. If one includes the Muslims from the neighbouring, once-Soviet republics to the south, one arrives at a figure approaching 50 million Muslims. Depending one how one counts, Russia has no more than a million Protestants.
How strongly has the Moscow Patriarchy been pushing this new legislation? Ukraine observers were quick to point out that Irina Yarovaya, a member of Putin’s “United Russia” party, had been presented a medal by Patriarch Kirill in September 2015 for “strengthening the spiritual and moral traditions in society”. The legislation is undoubtedly a victory for the Moscow Patriarchy. But it is apparently not a total victory: Further legislation signed into law by Putin made corporal punishment of children illegal – a position at odds with the Patriarchy.
An Orthodox specialist on religion, Roman Lunkin (Moscow), shares the alarmist interpretation. But he concedes that the Patriarchy is acting out of weakness, not out of strength. He also has his doubts whether the new measures can be implemented widely: “The more radically the new laws are enforced, the less (church and state) will be respected.”
Developments such as these lend themselves to overdramatisation. The foes of Russia are interested in placing Russia within the worst possible light. The NATO forces in the process of surrounding Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave well understand that the misdeeds of the Russian side need to be stressed in order to rally one’s own forces. This is understandable in human terms – Russians are subject to the same temptation when describing Western conditions.
On the evangelical scene, the West’s independent missions will tend to overdramatise the needs and woes of those they profess to serve. Sadly, only dramatic stories can increase donations and market share in a highly competitive market. Apparently for that reason, the “Open Doors” mission recently exaggerated the dangers facing Christian migrants in Germany’s refugee centres. This will also be the case in Eastern Ukraine, where reporting concerned about objectivity and fairness is in short supply.
On a more personal level: Since the passing of this legislation, some ex-residents of Russia now living in Ukraine are congratulating themselves on their decision to depart. Of course, such sentiment does not sound like solidarity in the ears of those remaining in Russia. In one instance on Facebook, a Slav from Nova Scotia even claimed that the new Russian legislation was God’s punishment levelled at Russia’s Baptist Union for having praised “Putin’s war” in Eastern Ukraine.
William Yoder, Ph.D. lives in the Belarusian border city of Orsha and is a spokeperson of the Russian Evangelical Alliance.
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #16-09. You will also find this article on the webpage: “rea-moskva.org”.