On the surface this can appear to be a roll back to the days of the Soviet Union. Many who grew up during the days of the Cold War probably remember stories about religious persecution in Russia; pastors taken away in the middle of the night, churches destroyed and believers arrested and sent off to gulags, never to be heard from again. It’s easy to speculate and let our imaginations run wild. Certainly, there is great cause for concern. But it’s important now to step back and look at the facts, pray and trust God’s sovereign hand in all of this. Russian Christian lawyers have been examining this new law carefully. They have hosted many meetings and webinars with Russian pastors and Christians to look carefully at the specifics of the law and discern its intent. Current and former Russia field workers with InterAct have sifted through summaries of these meetings and have found a number of common points that keep emerging. Here are some facts that we know right now:
This article has been translated by InterAct staff and summarizes one of many webinars that Russian lawyers have put on to address the new “missionary activity” laws. Since it is not an official statement about the law but rather interpretation/speculation. But it does follow the train of thought that our missionaries, both current and former, have read from different sources that have accessed the new law. Bracketed and italicized comments are editorial by InterAct staff. The Russian article can be found here: http://www.invictory.com/columns/936/
How Should Believers Respond to the New Law?
In the opinion of Sergei Ryahovscov, there have been anti-missionary laws already on the books in many regions of Russia, but they have never been enforced. So, there is hope that this law was also adopted as a preventative measure. Evangelicals have never been viewed as extremists or terrorists. [We have examples of anti-evangelical prosecution of churches in Buryatia and Tuva long before this law was passed. For example, there has been a city ordinance in Krasnoyarsk that forbids public proselytizing within the city limits. It’s on the books, but we've never heard it used against someone.]
A complete overview of the law was offered by Vladimir Ryakhovskiy, a lawyer and member of the Human Rights Council under the President of Russian Federation. In his words, the main problem now is how to live within the structure of the law without withdrawing from of the main values of Christianity, preaching and missions. The text of the missionary activity law was written by people who have no concept of missionary activity. Keeping this in mind, it important to note that terminology in the law is not related to a believer’s terminology as it relates to missionary activity.
Vladimir Ryakhovskiy noted that Christian lawyers will defend their position using the interpretation of the law against the interpretation of missionary activity that local police officer may come up with. In that situation the totality of legal norms would apply. Furthermore, we must remember that no one has repealed Article 28 of the Russian Constitution and the Law relating to freedom of conscience, as well as Russia's international obligations. Therefore "nothing should be interpreted in terms of infringement of the rights of believers’ freedom of conscience."
Vladimir Ryakhovskiy expounded on one of the dangerous points prescribed in the new law. Religious organizations can be severely penalized (fined) for failure to publicize the full name of the organization in all of the organization’s activity. The law is not completely clear on what activity is included, whether that includes all business transactions, basic day-to-day activities, or only during ministry activity, etc.
All articles of the law on religious activity and related fines, will be understood based on the definition of “missionary activity”, so it is important to clarify the limitations set on missions in the eyes of the law
1. The “activity” specifically relates to a religious association (organization or group). The law does not contain any direct references to conditions of missionary work for individual citizens. From this perspective, the law does not prohibit "conversations about God" in general.
2. Religious associations (organizations and groups) can carry out missionary activity through authorized people or directly from a legal entity.
3. Included in “missions” is the spread of information about the doctrine of a specific association (organization or group), and does not include someone who talks of God or the Bible in general. In the eyes of the law, "conversations about God" are not considered “missions activity” nor the spread of a certain associations’ doctrine.
4. Missions is the spread of beliefs among those who are not members of the association.
5. The goal of missions is the participation of followers in the organization. If believers share the Gospel, but do not invite a person to specifically join the church or organization then, theoretically, it cannot be considered missionary activity.
6. Missions is specifically a public activity, that includes all the features listed above. Publicly, including open events, in the media, on the internet and, as specified in the law, “other legal means.”
In connection with these six attributes is important to emphasize that now there are three different understandings of missionary activity. The understanding of missions to believers of different religions and faiths, how Religious Studies [secular educational understanding] would interpret missions, and interpretation of the concept of missions by the new law.
During the enforcement of the law, which will inevitably entail discrimination against believers and churches, both intentionally and as a result of ignorance, lawyers will defend their point of view. That view being that if there is no combination of these six attributes [listed above], it cannot be considered as missionary activity for the purpose of this law. For example, the law forbids missionary activity in a residential area, but with the exception of ceremonies and worship, but for believers, the church service can also be considered part of the missions and may be accompanied by a sermon. If a complaint/problem arises, it will be necessary to prove that believers who read the Bible and in fact preach in a residential area are not engaged in missionary work, corresponding to the six features of the law.
Bishop Konstantin Bendas [of the Russian Pentecostal Union] even more boldly and directly interprets the legal position of the lawyers: "While a believer does not have written permission from the religious association, a citizen is not carrying out missionary activity." Clergy/Pastors do not need a documents showing they are missionaries. Many of the denominational religious organizations face no problem at all because all of their pastors have been issued documents certifying their position. Konstantin Bendas noted that churches should never issue all of their members the document giving them rights to carry out missionary activity, because the organization is directly responsible for the missionary activity of any people carrying that document, which could lead to maximum fine of 1 million rubles. Documents should only be issued with a limited time of validity, so that member of the church could not use it whenever they want (in the case he suddenly leaves the church/walks away from the faith).
Konstantin Bendas drew particular attention to holding church services on rented property. In the rental contract signed with the owner, the religious organization must state the area will be used - "for religious activities."
An important part of the law adds restrictions on foreign citizens. According to lawyer Lev Simkin, the right to free expression and sharing of their religious beliefs is also protected for all foreigners legally staying in the territory of Russia. The changes relate to those foreigners who want to enter Russian for missionary activity as defined by the law (six attributes discussed above). A foreign citizen entering Russia for missionary activity, is no longer issued a humanitarian visa, and only a work visa. [For most of InterAct's time in Russia religious workers obtained visas under laws governing humanitarian visas]. Accordingly, an organization inviting a foreign preacher must obtain permission to recruit labor, then meet the labor quota for the registration of a foreign citizen on a work visa. And a work contract must by signed by both sides, given him permission to do professional missionary activity. [Each region has specific quotas that limit the number of foreign workers that can be invited].
Moreover, Article 20 of the Law of Freedom of Conscience, still has two reasons for inviting foreigners. The first is for international relations and contacts, pilgrimage, education, and the second is religious activity. If one enters Russia for the first reason, he may not engage in professional religious activity. The best way to protect against problems is to invite a person under a work visa. Another conflict is that now the law allows for foreign missionary activity, to get a work visa and issue the contract, in the territory in which the organization is located [limiting itinerate activity]. So, for whatever region the foreign missionary receives the work permit, he can only work in missionary activity in that given region [province or republic]. And that is even if the inviting organization is registered nationwide. In any case, as emphasized by Lev Simkin, a foreign citizen can preach at worship services and share his faith personally - at least, this position is defendable.
As practice shows, application of the law in Russia is very different depending on the region. The selectivity of the police, prosecutors and courts is often obvious that the "traditional" religion [Orthodoxy] hopes that they will not come after them. Provocations, ignorance, deliberate policy to oust the non-Orthodox groups from the public sphere may be used to try to change the believer’s missionary thinking. But the preaching of the Word, is like “living water,” that when knocked on, turns out to be a rock, unmovable.
Author: Roman Lunkin
As time goes by there will inevitably be many inconsistencies in the interpretation and enforcement of the law. In some regions of Russia where churches already face resistance from local officials, this law will likely be used to further restrict church work and persecute believers. But in other regions churches may be impacted much less.
What does this mean for InterAct and our ministry in Russia? We are still there! We are committed to making disciples among least-reached peoples across the North Pacific Crescent and that includes Siberia. Since we began sending missionaries to Russia over twenty years ago, most of our ministry has been behind the scenes doing the work of relational evangelism and discipleship. As far as we can tell at this time, this new law will affect our current activities very little.
Another possible “silver lining” is that there is a huge opportunity now to help disciple Russian Christians in what it means to engage more in relational evangelism. Much of the Christian evangelization that was done in the early 90s was on a mass public scale. And many churches that were planted during that period have continued those methods of outreach until today. Facing the restrictions of this new law provides an opportunity for the Russian church to focus more on building trusting, loving relationships with unbelievers with the goal of sharing their faith and having those deep conversations about the gospel, an activity which is still completely legal.
As we move forward into this new era of ministry in Russia, here are some ways you can partner with us:
• PRAY for Russian believers and churches to persevere in the work of the gospel. Pray for wisdom and for the Lord’s
guidance to find new ways to share the gospel of Christ with their neighbors, friends and family.
• PRAY for strategic and intentional church planting in Russia’s unreached areas. There are still hundreds of communities
with no witness of the gospel whatsoever.
• PRAY for more workers in the field. We need long-term workers in Russia now more than ever! We believe God has
providentially positioned our organization in Russia to be engaged in a type of ministry that will be minimally impacted
by this new law. As far as we can tell, the type of ministries we do in Russia do not fall under the legal definition
of “missionary activity.” Consider if God might be calling you to GO and serve long-term, and ENCOURAGE
others to do the same.
• GIVE to mission work in Russia. Consider becoming a financial parter with a missionary serving there, or support
other ministry projects. Contact us and we’ll let you know how you can help.
• REMAIN CONFIDENT that God is in control. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 16:18 that that the gates of hell cannot
prevail against his Kingdom. Fight discouragement with the truth of God’s word and pray that Russian believers
would do the same.