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Ruth and Don Ossewaarde
Ruth and Don Ossewaarde | Handout

U.S. missionary fights evangelism ban in Russia’s highest court

An American missionary in Russia is taking his fight against that country’s new religious restrictions all the way to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

Independent Baptist missionary Don Ossewaarde, based in Oryol, was the first American charged under the Yarovaya legislation. The laws ban proselytizing, preaching, and praying outside officially recognized religious institutions. Since July 20, authorities across Russia have detained, arrested, and fined dozens of individuals or religious organizations.

According to Forum 18, Russian prosecutors have filed charges against 33 persons, including Baptists, Pentecostals, a Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox archbishop, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hare Krishnas, and a Buddhist. Seventeen were convicted.

In spite of losing his appeals so far, Ossewaarde said he would “press the case as far as he can.” Authorities fined him $600 in August for having home church services and advertising them without written permission, World Watch Monitor reported.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal in November—its first case related to the 2016 anti-terrorism bills. Ossewaarde’s lawyers also are appealing to Russia’s constitutional court. As of Jan. 26, the Supreme Court had not scheduled a hearing date.

“The silent delay may indicate that the court is waiting to see which way the political winds are blowing in this new year,” Ossewaarde wrote. “The Russians expect that the new presidential administration in America will have better relations with Russia, but nobody really knows how that will develop. Pray that a quick and favorable decision will come from the court.”

While he waits, the assembly of Russia’s Parliament convened a working group to review and consider proposing amendments, Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin reported.

Proponents portrayed the 2016 laws as necessary to fight terrorism. President Vladimir Putin signed them in spite of Christian leaders warning they violated religious rights and Russia’s constitution. Because they targeted unregistered churches, the laws widely impacted foreign-based mission groups and evangelical churches. Many of them never registered with the government because of Soviet-era property restrictions.

Some experts say those restrictions on Christian missionaries were deliberate. Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia, calls the legislation an “anti-missionary” law.

“I don’t think it was any kind of oversight,” Rakhuba said, adding the laws were consistent with efforts within the past decade to limit evangelical groups viewed as a threat to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The legislation did not officially exempt the Orthodox Church, but Rakhuba said it was written carefully to limit most other churches. Many in Russia view the Orthodox Church as part of the country’s national identity.

Mission Eurasia works to help train and provide resources for churches in 13 former Soviet countries and Israel. Many church leaders in Russia who’ve spoken to Rakhuba say they are adjusting their ministries and involvement in their communities in order to survive under the new laws.

Although he is not optimistic the court will overturn Ossewaarde’s conviction, Rakhuba urged people to pray for a miracle.

“We all pray that God will give special wisdom to President Putin to understand that evangelicals are not threats to Russia,” he said.

— by Julia A. Seymour| WNS

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