The loss of religious freedoms in Russia has creeped forward at a steady rate over the past 10 years or so and thus gone rather unnoticed by much of the Western World. However, recent leaps towards further restrictions on religious organizations and greater governmental control have caused some to take notice. The most public among these has been the crackdown on the activities of the Watch Tower Society.
Many other religious organizations are worried that they could be next. The Baptist Union, which is by far the largest group of protestants in Russian, wrote the following open letter to President Vladimir Putin in defense of the freedom of religion and the right for the Watch Tower Society to exist in Russia.
AN OPEN LETTER
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, peace be with you!
On March 15, 2017, the Ministry of Justice of the RF appealed to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation with a lawsuit concerning the liquidation of the “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” and a ban on their activities of this religious organization for extremism. The case is scheduled for April 5.
At the same time, according to the Order of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation No. 320-r dated 15.03.2017 “On Suspending the Activity of a Religious Organization” in connection with the appeal to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Justice suspended the activity of the Religious Organization “Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia” and its local religious organizations.
Since the right to freedom of conscience is realized by individuals through joint participation in some form of activity of religious associations and is expressed in the possibility to carry out joint actions for the realization and dissemination of their convictions, the closure of religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses will lead to a restriction of the freedom of conscience of tens of thousands of citizens of the Russian Federation professing the teaching Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Despite our differences with regards to the religious sphere, namely the theological positions of the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain practices, we express our deep concern about the situation of the religious organization “Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia” concerning their ability to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and religion.
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! We ask you, as guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, to protect the right of freedom of conscience of citizens of the Russian Federation and to prevent the closure of religious organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
With respect and prayer for you,
Chairman of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists,
Unfortunately, this letter seemed to do little good. On April 20th, 2017 the Russian supreme court made a decision to ban all activities of the Watch Tower Society and liquidate all of their assets! This affects some 175,000 Jehovah’s Witness and around 395 local “Kingdom Halls” in Russia.
According to the Russian constitution chapter 2 article 18:
“Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.”
And so you might wonder how the government could simply shut down a very large religious organization. While the constitution sounds quite nice and seems to guarantee the freedom of conscience and religion, there are a slew of laws that mitigate the freedoms found in the constitution.
For instance Russian Federal Law #125, article 14 states that the government may liquidate all assets of any religious organization that is engaging in “extremist” activity. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their refusal of blood transfusions and military service is considered “extremism.”
This is by far the first time the Russian government has banned and liquidated a religious organization. Over the past 20 years literally hundreds of religious organizations have been chased out of Russia. Many of them are small and not well known and thus did not make big news. The banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the largest religious group so far that has been “kicked out” of Russia.
Once a religious group is banned all its assets are turned over to the government. If individuals from the banned group dare to continue the group’s activities they could face a fine of 400,000 to 800,000 Rubles or 2 to 4 years' income; or 6 to 10 years' imprisonment with a ban on working in one's profession of up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for 1 to 2 years according to article 282.2 of Russian Criminal Code.
You might think that Russia is going back to its Atheistic Soviet days. In terms of Soviet type control over religion the answer is “yes.” However, far from become anti-religious, Russia is actually becoming more religious. Growth of the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam are off the charts in Russia. In particular the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys the favor of the Russian government, or maybe it’s the other way around. Often new laws that restrict religious freedoms seem to favor the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.
On July 20, 2016 new laws were introduced concerning “missionary” activities, which severely limit evangelism outside of the walls of the church and do not allow foreigners to engage in evangelistic activities without official approval. The punishment for illegal mission work imposes heavy fines. Some protestant missionaries have already fallen under this law and have either been deported or they are fighting it in court.
The Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarch never seems to come under the same scrutiny as other religious groups in Russian. On the contrary, these new laws restricting religious freedoms only serve to strengthen the position of the Russian Orthodox Church as the de-facto official religion of the Russian government.
The decision to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses is not a good sign for religious freedoms in Russia. As the restrictions are tighten many protestants are wondering how long they will continue to be able to freely worship and more importantly freely preach the Gospel. Already there are laws in place that could quickly put an end to nearly all public evangelism and in some instances, the local authorities are acting on these new laws.
Please pray for churches in Russia, that they will keep their religious freedoms and that God will give those ministering there wisdom in difficult times.
Caleb Suko and his wife Christin are alumni of Shasta Bible College & Graduate School. Caleb serves as pastor of Hope for People Church, in Odessa, Ukraine and director of “BLAGOVESTIE.today” center for evangelism and discipleship. You can learn more about Caleb and his ministry at http://sukofamily.org
With the Lord: Jason Nightingale of Wordsower International
Jason Nightingale of Wordsower International died April 19. He was 68.
Jason married his wife, Sharon, on June 8, 1973, the year he accepted Christ as his Savior. He had just finished serving as a medic and operating room technician with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and was performing with Sharon in a Christian theater company called the Covenant Players. Jason, who had grown up in a Catholic home, “started reading the Word to find out the basis for the plays we were performing, and the Lord brought me to Him through the Word.”
Shortly after he found Christ, Jason felt God calling him to share Scripture with others—in particular, by presenting Scripture in a dramatic fashion that would cause people to listen intently and heed God’s Word. “I thought He was calling me to Broadway and the Kennedy Center,” Jason said. But he soon realized that he could perform recitations of Scripture in churches across America as an ordained missionary and evangelist.
With that goal in mind, Jason founded Wordsower Ministries in 1974. He traveled across the country presenting the books of 1 Peter and Revelation with his booming bass voice in an art form that would later be called Scripture telling: using his skills of acting, storytelling, oral interpretation, and chancel theater to dramatically recite Scripture from memory. Jason said, “The Lord didn’t let me sing, so He let me speak loudly.”
Sitting in the quiet basement of his church, Jason memorized the book of Revelation in one month. Eventually he would memorize 18 books of the Bible: 15 from the New Testament, and three from the Old Testament. Anyone can memorize Scripture, he said. The key is to start small: choose a short book of the Bible that is meaningful to you, and then read it aloud, for “the primary part of learning is through your ears.”
Performing in churches, colleges, and other public settings, Jason presented the book of 1 Peter more than 2,000 times. And in each recitation he found a new application, for the Bible is a living Book, and God is always working. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active.” But a favorite of audiences has been his presentation of the book of Revelation.
Revelation “is more than an account of the end of the world,” Jason would tell audiences. “It offers a message of hope. Someday you will be in a place with God. You will see him face to face. There will be no more pain, no fear, no weakness. You won’t be dying anymore. There will be no want. You will be absolutely, totally, eternally fulfilled.”
In 2001, Wordsower Ministries blossomed into Wordsower International, a ministry that includes not only Jason’s original evangel arts ministry, but also compassionate care for orphans and widows around the world. Wordsower International has founded orphanages and schools in Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and India; sponsors more than 100 children in Nepal; supports widows in Ghana and Liberia; and works to plant churches in Liberia, Ghana, and South Africa.
“Can you look at a pile of dirt . . . and see a dormitory arise?” Jason recently wrote. “I can, for God has given faith, and faith is substance, an assurance of things hoped for.” He wrote these words as part of his poem “Faith Gives Substance.” Jason was not only a skilled speaker but also a gifted writer, composing poems that he shared in his weekly newsletters and authoring the short story The Faithful Watchman. (Read three of his poems: “Faith Gives Substance,” as well as two others.)
In 2013 Jason learned of a ministry in Nepal called Children Rescue Mission, which provides basic needs for children to keep them from being trafficked. Over the last four years, he traveled to Nepal five times to assist staff members and helped them launch an endeavor to support indigenous missionaries. He further aided Nepal in a unique event stateside: After a devastating earthquake hit Nepal in May 2015, Jason and a fellow member of Wordsower International, Tom Meyer, raised money to help victims by presenting Bible books from memory for 24 hours straight. Shasta Bible College in Redding, California, hosted and live-streamed the event.
Jason “has left his legacy in Nepal through his support, his teaching, and his service,” says Gyan Pantha, founder and president of Children Rescue Mission. “His memory will live on in the scores of people whose lives are being eternally changed, in particular in the lives of the children in Nepal who are being impacted by Children Rescue Mission.”
In addition to his ministry with Wordsower International, Jason served for a short time as a pastor in California and an adjunct professor at Northwest Baptist Seminary, Corban University, and Shasta Bible College.
Jason encouraged others to not leave it up to their pastors to read Scripture to them but to read the Word for themselves. “Feast upon the Word of God every day,” he said.
He is survived by his wife, Sharon; four sons, Matthew, Micah, Paul, and Joshua; and seven grandchildren.
A celebration of life service will take place April 29 at 2:00 p.m. at Bethany Baptist Church, Salem, Oregon.
Melissa Meyer is an associate editor at Regular Baptist Press, the publishing ministry of the Regular Baptist Churches. This article was originally published at GARBC.org and is reposted here by permission.
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