Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law the controversial an anti-terror package July 7 that severely curbs religious rights in Russia, including a ban on missionary activity outside of religious institutions.
Activists in Russia had warned that the legislative package would violate freedoms of speech, privacy, and religion.
Casual conversations and any sort of communication about religion outside church buildings would be considered “missionary activity” and punishable without prior government approval, Barnabas Fund reported. Forum 18 reported violators could be fined up to the equivalent of $780 per person, 20 times as much for organizations. Foreign violators could be deported.
Pentecostal Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky and other religious leaders warned the law would violate citizens’ rights and contradict the constitution.
“It looks like missionary activity would be off-limits to anybody but representatives of the registered organizations or groups or individuals who have entered into formal agreements with such bodies,” Joel Griffith, a spokesman for Slavic Gospel Association, told Mission Network News.
The legislation surprised many religious groups.
“Nobody expected this,” Mikhail Frolov, a Hare Krishna attorney, told Forum 18 in June. “The entry into force of this law would mean that the Russian political system has shifted ever further towards a totalitarian regime.”
The Russian government considers Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam the four “traditional” faiths, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“Russia’s 1997 religion law sets onerous registration procedures and empowers state officials to impede registration or obstruct the construction or rental of worship buildings,” USCIRF noted in its 2015 report. Although the Russian constitution protects the religious freedom of everyone and promises equal legal status for all faiths, in practice the Russian Orthodox Church is “especially favored.”
USCIRF warned the country’s “anti-extremism” law was the most significant threat to religious freedom.
Ryakhovsky’s organization also said requiring religious people to carry permits allowing them to share their faith or materials about their religion was “absurd and offensive,” according to Asia News. It compared the proposal to the repressive Soviet regime.
“Soviet history shows us how many people of different faiths have been persecuted for spreading the Word of God,” the letter said. “This law brings us back to a shameful past.”
— by Julia A. Seymour