On 20 July 2016, a new law came into place that will highly restrict Russian Christians. No longer will Christians be allowed to evangelise outside of churches, hold private prayer meetings, or legally have house churches.
So why has this happened, what is this law and what can Christians do now?
Terrorism + Religion = Restriction
Russia has for years been battling Islamic extremists in the Caucasus, a region in Southern Russia bordering Central Asia. These extremists have long caused issues for Russia but have stepped up attacks recently, emboldened by extremist groups such as Islamic State. In November 2015, a Russian passenger jet was blown up on its flight to Egypt, in June 2016 a Russian citizen was implicated in the airport bombing in Turkey.
With an already violent branch of Islam within the country and an increase in attacks, the government has been forced to respond. And has responded with very a heavy hand.
What is the law?
The new law is called the Yarovaya Law. Rushed through parliament with very little debate, President Vladimir Putin signed off on the bill, ignoring churches and politicians’ advice not to do so. As an anti-terrorism bill it does not explicitly target religions or churches, but there is a special provision for both. The main points of the bill are:
- Increased punishments for any terrorism related offence, for anyone 14 years or older.
- Newly introduced prison sentences for failure to report terrorism related offences.
- Data from phone and internet providers to be recorded for six months.
- Restriction of religious activity, such as evangelism and meetings, to registered buildings.
- Visiting religious teachers will be required to carry specific documentation of their registration with them at all times, and will only be permitted to work at the invitation of registered religious groups.
This may not explicitly target Christians, but it has huge implications. For example, any Christian who has a prayer meeting in their home, as of 20 July, will be breaking the law. Any Christian who wants to share their faith at work, school, or online will be breaking the law. For a missionary or visiting pastor who preaches in a church without a work visa, they will be breaking the law.
Intentional or not, this law will impact on Christians a great deal. And while on the surface it may appear that this is not the desired outcome, how it is enforced will really demonstrate its intent. Churches who conduct evangelical events are concerned.
What are Christians in Russia saying?
Christians from different churches in Moscow have united in prayer against the new law. One church has simply labelled it as “bad” and “dangerous”. The leaders of protestant churches in Russia have met to discuss the new developments and said, “This law, in the requirements that it imposes on us, as Christians, we simply cannot perform. But we do not want to become lawbreakers.”
Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice wrote on Facebook, “Today is a dark day indeed… The hope was that Vladimir Putin would not in the end sign this law. A law which openly contradicts the gospel command ‘go and make disciples’ and, in addition, violates the constitutional rights of citizens.”
Despite this, the law is now in place and will be enforced from 20 July. For Christians in Russia, this will be the new reality of Christian life. But this new reality, in a way, reflects a previous reality – the reality of Christianity under communism in Russia. And for many the concern that this is likely to occur again is very real.
The previously persecuted church in Russia
Communist rule in Russia lasted from 1917-1989 and is still fresh in the memory of many Russians. Open Doors started in 1955 when Brother Andrew smuggled bibles into the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a group of communist countries in Eastern Europe that were controlled by Russia. The communist government controlled almost every aspect of people’s lives including religion. To do this they attempted to create a cult like worship of communist leaders but this did not always work. As the church was viewed as evil and a challenge to their power, the communist regime tried to destroy it. Bibles were burned, pastors were sent to prison camps (where people died in the millions) and church buildings were torn down. Christianity was effectively forced underground.
Since the end of communism, the Russian church has seen a mismatched recovery. While the Russian Orthodox Church has gained a lot of power and wealth, protestant churches are usually small and widely viewed with suspicion. There is a great divide between the two and most government clamp downs have impacted on protestant churches rather than the Orthodox. The concern now is mostly for the smallest protestant churches, who will be unable to meet in homes. If this trend to control religious activity continues however, Orthodox Churches may find themselves losing their rights too.
Please pray for Christians in Russia to continue trusting Jesus, even as this new law is enforced.
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