Russians Fast, Pray, Fearing Evangelism Restrictions
From ANN, June 29, 2016: Adventists in Russia joined in a day of fasting and prayer on Tuesday (June 28) out of concern for proposed legislation that would severely restrict evangelism in the country, banning religious meetings in homes and requiring people who wish to share their faith online or through religious literature to first secure documents. Leaders of the denomination’s Euro-Asia Division, which includes most of the former Soviet Union, called for the day of prayer as they appealed to President Vladimir Putin to reject the legislation voted the lower house of parliament late last week.
Part of a package of antiterrorism proposals, the bill must be voted by the upper house and then approved by Putin to become law. “In connection with the … adoption of legislation significantly restricting the freedom of missionary activity and its upcoming hearing in the [upper house], we are appealing to you to unite in fasting and prayer on June 28 for God’s intervention and an extension of a period of grace for the unhindered preaching of the gospel in Russia,” Adventist leaders stated.
Oleg Goncharov, director of the public affairs and religious liberty department at the Euro-Asia Division, presented an appeal to Putin to reject the legislation. “It is impossible for believers to comply with the requirements not to express their religious beliefs and to be silent even in their own homes as required by the legislation,” Goncharov said in an open letter (in Russian) to Putin published Monday on the division’s website.
“If this legislation is approved, the religious situation in the country will grow considerably more complicated and many believers will find themselves in exile and subjected to reprisals because of our faith,” he said. “All of this can’t help but worry all faithful Adventists, who have carried out their activities in Russia for more than 130 years.”
Goncharov is a member of a government advisory council on religious organizations and co-chairs a council of Protestant churches in Russia. He called the proposed legislation “a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights, of the inalienable right given to every person by their Creator to express their religious convictions, and of rights enshrined in the Russian Constitution and international law.” He also expressed concern that the wording of the legislation was vague and open to interpretation by law enforcement agencies.
The proposal would impose on a Russian citizen convicted of violating the legislation a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($75 to $765 in US dollars). An organization would face a fine of 100,000 to 1 million rubles ($1,525 to $15,265). Citizens of other countries would be deported.
The Kremlin has not responded publicly to appeals to revise the legislation. Human rights advocates have also called for changes, saying several of the proposals violate international law.
Goncharov cautioned that the missionary component of the bill would affect millions of people and said its apparently unconstitutional language has sown confusion among religious denominations and legal experts. He said he was especially concerned about a provision that prohibits the exercise of missionary activity in residential areas, “thus effectively legalizing the invasion of citizens’ privacy by forbidding them from expressing their religious beliefs or meeting their religious needs even at home.”
The bill also requires believers who want to share their faith with others, including through the Internet, to possess necessary documents from a religious association. This “forces citizens to join religious communities in order to exercise their inalienable right to freedom of conscience, which is a gross violation of the Russian Constitution and international law,” Goncharov said.
The legislation about religion was abruptly added to the package of antiterrorism bills on June 20. It defines missionary activity as public worship and other religious rites and ceremonies; the distribution of religious print, audio and video materials; public fundraising for religious purposes; conducting religious meetings; and preaching.
Goncharov said the Adventist Church joined other religious denominations in support of government efforts to combat extremism and terrorism. But he said the section on missionary activity went too far and its rapid introduction and approval in just three days violated federal law, bypassing required review by the parliamentary committee on religious organizations and with representatives of religious organizations that would be directly affected by the bill.
“Russia has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that respects the rights and freedoms of every person regardless of his or her religion,” Goncharov said. “The adoption of this legislation would put hundreds of thousands of believers from various denominations in a very difficult position.”
Goncharov appealed to Putin to return the legislation to the lower house for revision. “We continually pray for you, Mr. President, as well as for all state authorities,” he said.