The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
It appears once again as if the Russian state will be moving simultaneously in opposite directions. Restrictive measures are combined with financial support for Protestant and multi-confessional projects.
The worries are self-evident since the „Yarovaya-Laws“ or the „Yarovaya Package“ were passed on 7 July. A seminar held by the US-supported “Slavic Legal Centre” on 18 July in the Russian capital was attended by 3.500 mostly Protestant listeners.
“The believers are very worried about monetary fines”, reported Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Relations for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, on 20 September. “Our congregations are frequently very poor and even a fine of 1.000 roubles (14 euros) can cause major excitement. Many of our congregations still meet in unregistered church buildings officially belonging to private persons. But now it appears as if outside guests and foreigners will barely have access to such quarters. Much regarding the practical implementation of the new laws is still unclear, and in more rural regions our police do not always act in a professional manner. In one recent case, people were kept from praying in their own place of worship.”
In Samara/Volga Protestants were very unsure whether they would even be permitted to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Russian Synodal Bible. Yet precisely this project has received significant state funding!
The news service Forum 18 reported that during their first full month in force (August), the Yarovaya-Laws had led to the conviction of six persons. Not only lonely wolves and Hari-Krishna were affected; long-established Baptist, Adventist and Pentecostals congregations have also been under scrutiny.
Moscow Pentecostal Sergey Filinov, Pastor of the “Mission of Living Faith” and head of the umbrella “Council of Christian-Evangelical Churches”, notes that the banning of missionary activity could be interpreted as an infringement of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to religious freedom. According to present interpretations, the new laws permit religious gatherings in private quarters if the house group and all its members are part of a registered religious organisation. But in whose name is a person speaking when he proclaims his faith, the pastor asks: “He may speak in the name of his church, but not in his own name.” The pastor regards this as a splitting of hairs.
It could soon be the case that foreigners on tourist or humanitarian visas will no longer be allowed to speak at religious gatherings. This would probably also affect Ukrainian citizens, though they are permitted to enter Russia without a visa. One hears that a written contract between a guest speaker and the inviting organisation will be required.
This is clearly an attempt by the government to bring order to the far-flung and complex network of religious organisations developed since 1990. All should be required to clarify their identity and background, all should be categorised. One could maintain that these measures are nothing less than an attempt to put into practice the legislation already passed in 1997. This will place significant pressure on decentrally-organised confessions such as the Korean Presbyterians. There is essentially no Presbyterian leader in Russia with a complete overview of his denomination’s national presence. That is not particularly surprising, for South Korea possesses roughly 112 independent and autonomous Presbyterian denominations. The “Soviet Tserkvei”, the “International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” formed in 1961, does not want to be a registered organisation and never has on principle possessed officially-registered places of worship. It is prepared to once again accept the chips as they fall.
Vitaly Vlasenko spent 19 September in Samara in hopes of calming the waves. He stressed there that nothing is impeding the holding of events commemorating the Bible translation. He also visited the Orthodox Metropolitan Sergiy (Poletkin), who promised to send a delegate to the anniversary celebrations. According to Vlasenko, the Metropolitan also gave the new “I Read the Bible”-project his unmitigated support. This project promoting the reading of the Bible also enjoys strong government funding; both projects have been run through the External Relations department (Vlasenko) of the Baptist Union.
The state will also be strongly funding a project for the Reformation year of 2017 organized by Archbishop Dietrich Brauer and his “Evangelical-Lutheran Church”. (The financial numbers have not been made public.) It appears once again as if the Russian state will be moving simultaneously in opposite directions. Restrictive measures are combined with financial support for Protestant and multi-confessional projects.
Vlasenko consequently claims that the new legislation is not directed against Protestants: “Our government of course is not opposed to the Christian faith.” This church diplomat intends to interact constructively with the state and Orthodoxy. “Sometimes organisations are too critical,” he concludes. “We desire constructive dialogue – the state and Orthodoxy are our allies. We desire to stress that we are Russians, that we feel ourselves at one with our land. The Bible teaches us that we should obey and honour our authorities. That gets complicated only when they contradict the Bible.” He believes organisations such as the “Slavic Legal Centre” ignore the underlying dynamics expressed through the Yarovaya legislation.
My commentary: It is clear that states such as Russia, China, India and the Muslim countries of Central Asia intend to prevent the haphazard proliferation of religious organizations common in the countries of Latin America and Africa. In the latter, even the tiniest Western churches and sects are permitted to open new branches. Several years ago, I chanced upon Baptist employees of the Indian embassy at Moscow’s “Central Baptist Church“. I mentioned to them that foreigners preaching or baptising in India on tourist visas can reckon with an entry ban of five years. These Indian diplomats had no problem with that practice. These nations intend to retain their cultural identity – one thinks defensively in Eastern Europe and many parts of Asia.
Pastor Vlasenko concedes that the Yarovaya-Laws passed through the Duma as a small-print rider hidden behind more prominent legislation. Not even the Duma’s commission for religious affairs had been consulted; nevertheless, President Putin had seen it fit to sign the legislation.
Since the elections on 18 September, the Duma is being reconstituted. Church leaders such as Sergey Filinov hope a person such as Yaroslav Nilov, chairman of the Duma’s commission on religious affairs, will start an initiative to improve and better define the legislation. Highly regarded by Protestants, the 1982-born Nilov is a delegate of rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s “Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia” (LDPR). Putin has already mentioned the possibility of future changes.
COMMENT: BAD NEWS IS GOOD NEWS
How far would the West’s arms build-up have gotten during the Cold War without reports on the persecution of Christians in communist-run states? That’s how the bad is turned into “good”. For those wanting to attack the Russian Federation, the Yarovaya legislation is a highly-welcome development. These laws help feed the propaganda mills.
But the friends of Russia and all other alternative systems do not do otherwise. That’s general human practice: One uses the sins of the other side to further one’s own cause. And one increases the “positive” effect of this practice by exaggerating the sins of the other side.
Perhaps we could agree on the following: Our criticism does not intend to destroy, it is instead a query. Serious, thought-through responses to queries are always possible and welcome. That’s how we could make progress.
I often have the impression, much would remain uncovered in the Protestant, Russian-speaking world if there were not at least a few observers willing to describe affairs in English. The churches of the West need larger sources of information. Information must be the foundation of our decisions; we’re otherwise groping in the dark. Both Russian and Ukrainian shortcomings need to be covered. But it is in all cases important that a fair and honourable style be preserved.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
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. You will also find this article on the webpage: “rea-moskva.org”.