Protestants protest anti-evangelism law in European court


They do not agree to consider an interview as covert missionary activity

by Andrei Gordeev

Vedomosti, 26 May 2019


The Yarovaya law interprets the concept of missionary activity too broadly, Russian evangelicals think.


The European Court of Human Rights (E.C.H.R.) registered an appeal from the Nizhny Novgorod division of Pentecostal Christians of the Bible Center Embassy of Jesus, attorney Sergei Chugunov, who is representing evangelicals in Strasbourg, reports. In 2018 the organization was fined 100,000 rubles for illegal missionary activity. The basis was a video posted by it on the internet of an interview of a student of a local university from Zimbabwe, Kudzai Niamarebu. She did not have permission for missionary activity, but according to the results of an expert analysis conducted on the initiative of the F.S.B., the interview "has a covert missionary character, based on immediate religious experience and oral testimony," the appeal states (Vedomosti has a copy of the appeal). The Bible Center maintains that Russian authorities violated the right to freedom of religious confession (art. 9 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights) and freedom of association (art. 11). The interview is not a sermon, but amendments to the law on freedom of conscience, which were adopted in 2016 within the context of the so-called Yarovaya Package, introduced the concept of missionary activity, which contains  wording that is too vague, the plaintiffs indicate. And in their opinion this makes possible characterizing as missionary activity practically any activity of a religious organization and even the mere disclosure by citizens of their religious convictions.


It is unclear what kind of permission a parishioner must receive in order to give an interview that is officially distributed by a registered religious organization, Chugunov says. He says that these amendments have already been challenged in the Constitutional Court, which did not find in them a contradiction of the constitution, but gave its own interpretation, introducing the concept of "a system-forming indicator of missionary activity." However that has had practically no effect on law enforcement practice, Chugunov adds, since this definition does not have sufficient clarity.


The former State Duma deputy Igor Zotov, who introduced the "missionary" amendments in 2016 (they appeared in the Yarovaya Package before the second reading), says that it is difficult for him to comment on the particular case whose details he knows nothing about. But he admits that some "excesses in localities" cannot be ruled out: "I proceeded from the fact that faith is faith and there should be a procedure."


The press service of the Ministry of Justice stated that the appeal of the Bible Center has not been communicated by the E.C.H.R. and therefore "it is not possible" to comment on it.


The first person to appeal to the E.C.H.R. against the Yarovaya law was an American missionary from Orel, Donald Osewaarde, who was fined for posting announcements with an invitation to a prayer meeting. The appeal was filed in 2017 and has already been communicated, Memorial lawyer Tatiana Glushkova says. Among other things, the E.C.H.R. asked about the predictability of the application of the new law and the proportionality of the restrictions imposed. In reply, Russian authorities referred to existing legislation without explaining in any way the need for its severity, Glushkova recalls.


In addition, a pastor from Sochi, Aleksei Koliasnikov, appealed to the E.C.H.R. against a fine of 30,000 rubles for public reading of the Bible in a café, and a minister of an evangelical church from India, Viktor Immanuel Mani, was fined and deported from Russia for the sale of religious brochures without appropriate permissions. But these were private appeals, and this is the first time that a registered religious organization is appealing to the E.C.H.R., Chugunov notes.


According to data of judicial statistics, in 2018, 169 individuals and 78 legal entities were brought to accountability for violation of the law on freedom of conscience. But the legal department does not give a breakdown according to the types of violations (accountability for illegal missionary activity is provided for by point 4 of article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law). Although it is possible to get some notion of the effectiveness of the innovations: whereas in 2015, only three persons were brought to accountability on the basis of article 5.26, in 2016 (the Yarovaya amendments took effect in July) it was already 47 individuals and legal entities. (tr. by PDS, posted 29 May 2019)

Background articles:

Harassment of African students under anti-evangelism law continues

August 9, 2018

Anti-evangelism law invoked against Baptists in Orel

March 20, 2018

ECHR confronts Russian anti-evangelism law

July 27, 2017
Evangelical minister appeals to European court against Russian violation of rights
July 29, 2015

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