Following Russia’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelical Protestants have become the most-punished group under the country’s controversial “anti-missionary” laws.
More than half of all cases of alleged violations last year were against evangelicals. Of the 159 individuals and organizations prosecuted for demonstrating their faith in public, 50 were Pentecostals and 39 were Baptists, according to analysis by Forum 18, a news service covering religious freedom issues in Russia and surrounding countries.
So far this year, Russian authorities interrupted a Baptist worship service in April and charged its 71-year-old pastor with illegal missionary activity. In January, two Baptists were punished for discussing their faith at a bus stop.
The 2016 Yarovaya laws ban Russians from inviting outsiders to join their faith, even online or in their own homes, unless they have a government permit through a registered religious organization, and even then they can only evangelize in designated churches and religious sites.
Evangelicals in the former Soviet country say that even as many Christians outside the state-affiliated Russian Orthodox Church heed the restrictions, violators are more likely to face punishment when charged by authorities. The fines start at 5,000 rubles for individuals (~$75) and at least 50,000 rubles ($750) for organizations.
“Believers are afraid to carry the Word of God to the masses, because they fear fines,” Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin told Forum 18. “As ever, law enforcement agencies assume that any church activity is missionary activity, which is certainly not true.”
For some Protestant Christians, the rules have turned into a no-win situation: Even displaying the full name of their organization to comply with one provision of the law has been interpreted as a violation of another. Last year, a Baptist pastor in the Perm region was found guilty for hanging a sign reading, “House of Prayer of the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists, worship service every Sunday from 10am,” Forum 18 wrote.
“The placement … suggests that [the defendant] carries out missionary activity aimed at disseminating information about the beliefs of [the church] among other persons who are not members,” the verdict concluded. (The vast majority of Protestant congregations worship on property designated for residential use since laws restrict churches’ ability to lease or buy land for themselves.)
Russia ended up issuing a clarifying ruling last March after churches were being penalized for distributing basic information to their own flocks. The Constitutional Court decided that notices about services, ceremonies, or events only violate the anti-missionary laws if they indicate missionary activity will be a “defining feature” of the gathering.
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Source: Christianity Today