We Observe with Alarm and Puzzlement
Russian Baptist reaction to new draft legislation on missionary activity
M o s c o w -- New draft legislation introduced by the Russian Ministry of Justice on 12 October will, if it becomes law, greatly curtail religious freedom in Russia. On 20 October, the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB) published an open letter signed by its President, Yuri Sipko, and addressed to Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation. The letter states: “We observe with alarm and puzzlement the development of church-state relations. Planned changes in the law on freedom of worship will reduce that freedom to a declaratory level” present only on paper. This new legislation intends to exacerbate the already-restrictive current law “On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations” of 26 September 1997. Sharper legislation had been proposed previously – the present proposals are in some instances a milder form of those initially introduced in 2006.
Baptist leadership is also offended by the fact that government representatives at a roundtable of religious leaders in the Justice Ministry on 18 September, which Yuri Sipko attended, did not reveal all segments of the new draft legislation. Yet Baptists understand that the new legislation of 12 October already enjoys the approval of Russia’s four official, “traditional” religions: Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. They are defined as such by the legislation of 1997. Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, the RUECB’s “Director of External Church Relations”, believes the new laws are directed above all against Roman Catholics and Protestants – those without their own geographical territories in Russia.
This new legislation will attempt to register and regulate all forms of mission activity while also determining how it is to be carried out. Mission activity must occur without psychological pressure or the offering of material gain. Activities to the contrary will result in fines.
The new draft legislation stipulates that only religious groups registered in Russia for at least 15 years will be allowed to apply for permission to engage in missionary activity. Only members of a religious organisation will be allowed to evangelise, and the individual’s sponsoring body will also be held responsible for any infractions the missionary commits. But one church organisation may officially delegate a member to work for another church body.
Persons excluded from engaging in missionary work include anyone ever sentenced for engaging in extremist activities and foreigners in Russia on a temporary (for ex. tourist) visa. Missionary activities must exclude all “offers of material, social and other benefits” while avoiding “any threat of physical violence, psychological pressure and manipulation of consciousness”.
Mission activity shall not occur in hospitals, orphanages or homes for invalids or the aged without the approval of government and institution officials. Such efforts may also not take place within or on the grounds of government buildings, nor in the vicinity of a religious structure of another faith. The journalist Roman Lunkin (Moscow) notes that this requirement should also trouble the Orthodox, for they have several chapels within government buildings in Moscow.
Central to the draft legislation is the stipulation that minors may not be present at religious activities – nor may they be given printed, audio or video materials - without the express permission of their parents or guardians. The Baptist response points out that requiring pastors to turn away the young flies in the face of Jesus’ commandment to “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them“ (Mark 10:14). The absurdity of such a law is backed-up with an example: “Ill-wishers can send minors to a church service and law enforcement will then fine the church for their presence. This will be a convenient and profitable way to ruin a congregation and supplement the city budget. Why should the pastor need to serve as policeman?” The paper continues: “Why should a teenager need parental confirmation to attend church when the same is not demanded from cinemas, stadiums and discos? Is a place of worship more dangerous than a secular location? This legislation wants to define religious organisations as harmful, and that is clear discrimination.”
Baptists resent being placed in the same category as foul language and property damage. The paper asks: “How can unauthorised religious activity be more malicious than a drunken uproar?” According to the draft legislation, fines could run as high as 15.000 roubles ($517 US or 349 €) for organisations. The average Russian salary presently consists of 24.600 roubles ($848 US, 572 €) per month. The paper assures that a curtailing of missionary activity will also negatively affect the social work of Protestants. “Without missionary activities, drunkenness and the abuse of narcotics will only increase. Protestants have been involved in the rehabilitation of alcoholics and addicts with very good results. If the state begins to destroy the social ministry of churches, it will be forced to build more prisons.”
Protests against ambiguity
Baptists are worried by the ambiguity of these legal proposals. In a society known for its tendency towards anarchism, growth in the quantity of laws will generally only contribute to greater abuse of the legal system. Their statement asks, for ex: What is meant by forbidding churches to offer “other benefits” beyond material and social ones? Promising an alcoholic sobriety through church attendance could also be listed among “other benefits”. In addition, the paper states, “virtually any discussion could be defined as a form of ‘psychological pressure’”. Roman Lunkin adds that a sermon on the Last Judgement and the necessity for the forgiveness of sins could be defined as “psychological pressure” and “manipulation of consciousness”. The fine for that is 5.000 roubles ($172 or 116 €).
Baptists note that the bill does not distinguish between professional missionary activity and the conversations held by laity in the course of living their daily lives. “Practically all believers will become susceptible to penal sanction” – any one of them could be legally punished whenever the need might arise. Parallels are drawn to the cult of denunciation from the terrorist year of 1937: “The murky formulation of legislation will bring to full bloom a fat tree of possibilities for the denunciation of Christians by hostile neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances.”
Generally, the Baptist statement believes the introduction of such legislation would lead to a further moral decline of Russian society. It would also lead to greater alienation between the privileged and the non-privileged faiths, for it offers no guarantee against the renewed religious persecution of minorities. After all, in the 140 years of the Russian Baptist movement, Baptists “have experienced hardly more than 25 years of freedom”.
Not least of all, according to the Baptist paper, this new legislation would “contradict the Universal Declaration on Human Rights accepted by the United Nations and ratified by Russia”. It clearly impinges upon the freedom of the individual to believe as he or she feels fit. Such legislation would “damage the international authority of Russia”. “There is no objective necessity for a new law on missionary activity,” the paper concludes. “There is enough legislation already in place to deal with those who deceive law-abiding citizens.” On the topic of extremist and terrorist groups it adds: “We doubt that any changes to existing law will be a serious obstacle to their activities.”
Vitaly Vlasenko assures: “The RUECB is not against regulation of missionary activities per se, but we are certainly against their prohibition.” The Union will be asking its 1.750 congregations and groups to “unite for prayer and fasting”. Foreign churches are also welcome to participate. He adds that his church is interested in foreign legal expertise and would like to hear from churches who have had similar experiences in their relations with the state. Letters of concern addressed to Russian embassies worldwide are always welcome.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 22 October 2009
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. Release #09-32, 1.265 words or 8.142 keystrokes and spaces.