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