Protestants struggle to survive against anti-evangelism law


by Dmitry Sidorov

Takie Dela, 22 July 2019


There are three million protestants in Russia, of whom more than half are evangelicals: Pentecostals, charismatics, Mennonites, Baptists, and representatives of other similar denominations. Evangelical Christians appeared in Russia in the 1860s and almost all the time, except the 1920s and 1990s, they have been subjected to harsh persecution, first as opponents of Orthodoxy and then of communism.


History is repeating itself, and in the wake of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the wave of repressions has passed over to the evangelical protestants. In the opinion of experts, the Yarovaya law adopted in 2016, with its definition of illegal missionary activity, has been turned into the occasion for crude police intervention in the life of communities. Takie Dela studied the details.




The "Word of Life" church of Evangelical Christians in Kaluga has been litigating with the state for 19 years now, from the moment of the purchase of a building in 2000, according to its leader, Bishop Albert Ratnikov. After the adoption of the Yarovaya package, the "degree of absurdity of persecution" has been notably growing, the pastor says.


In September 2016, evangelists from the U.S.A., Alexander Whitney and David Kozan, arrived for a large church conference in Kaluga conducted by Word of Life. One of them came out on the stage and delivered a greeting while the other was sitting in the auditorium. On the same day, according to Pastor Albert, two "agents in civilian clothes," with cameras and dictaphones, arrived at the evening service in which the guests participated. After the conclusion of the service, several persons in uniform rushed up to him. "They told us that a violation of law has occurred in your church," the pastor quotes their words.


The Americans spent all night in the MVD department where they were interrogated by police and representatives of the local FSB directorate. The administrative case of the evangelist who had been left in the auditorium said: "He sat, actively nodding his head, agreeing [with the sermon]," the pastor recalls, who gained access to the case through lawyers from the Slavic Legal Center. Both guests received fines of 3,000 rubles each for violation of migration legislation; according to the charge, they were engaged in missionary activity and their tourist visas did not correspond to such activity.


In March 2018, an assistant pastor, Konstantin Shakhtenkov, was arrested on a charge of violating the Yarovaya law. A police officer told Pastor Albert about this: he received a letter from the FSB about "conducting operational events" during which illegal missionary activity was revealed.


A man was waiting at the pastor's home, who Albert Ratnikov thought was "an agent [FSB] in civilian clothes." He showed him an impressive package with the case: on the website of the congregation was posted an invitation to an annual church conference, which parishioners distributed on VKontakte. "He had a direct break down; everything was shown—who, where, when, which IP addresses," the pastor recalls.


The pastor managed to become acquainted with the case through lawyers of the Slavic Legal Center, which represented the interests of Word of Life. "Apparently the judge dragged her feet. Or they simply did not want to deal with us because we challenge every action and we make noise. One way or the other, the Word of Life case was closed because of the statute of limitations. They began considering it 2 or 3 months after the event," the priest recalls.


Another Pentecostal church, "Grace," was a subject in the file Albert Ratnikov was shown. It was charged with illegal missionary activity on the basis of a two-year-old invitation to an Easter service and concert. The pastor knows that Grace was fined 5,000.


On the Saturday before Easter in 2019, the youth of Word of Life conducted a demonstration. They made several eggs out of plastic foam and invited passers-by to write on them what Easter means, in their opinion. The police broke up the demonstration and arrested several teenagers, ages 14 and 15, and adults and interrogated them at the police department about propaganda of extremism. "Somebody clearly was upset that Easter was the next day," Bishop Albert says.


The incident ended without legal consequences for the church. One of the adult parishioners only had to write an explanation of why he had played a song on a guitar, "Walks on the water," by the group Nautilus Pompilius.




The "Resurrection" Pentecostal church of the city of Orel has conducted a summer Bible camp for 25 years. In the summer of 2016, police dispersed the camp on the basis of "involving children in a religious community." Resurrection pastor Pavel Abashin explains. "They were all children of our parishioners. Well, children—they were already fully conscious adolescents," the pastor specifies.


A month later a Baptist, Donald Osserwaarde, was arrested; he is an American citizen who at the time had already lived almost 15 years in Orel and was the pastor of a small congregation that met in his apartment. In the charging document he wrote: "I, Donald Jay Osserwaarde, categorically dispute that I violated the law. . . . I am not a representative of a religious association and therefore I would be unable to be engaged in missionary activity as defined in federal law No. 125. I met in my private home with friends and this action of a private individual in a private home does not violate the law." In the end the American was fined 40,000 rubles and, as Pastor Pavel says, he was subsequently deported from the country.


In 2017, Pavel Abashin continues, OMON troops broke up a water baptism, despite the fact that members of Resurrection had previously notified city authorities about the conduct of the ritual. In protestantism, baptism in natural water is one of the two sacraments. In 2019, the church has already twice been refused permission for such an event.


Abashin says that separate "missionary desks" have appeared in the oblast directorate of the FSB and visits to services by "people in civilian clothes" have become commonplace in the three years. The pastor himself is often summoned for questioning and, he maintains, they tried "to recruit" him. "What should I report about to them? Where my Bible is? They think that if you have been abroad once, then you are an agent of the State Department, NATO, and all the rest," Pastor Pavel laments.


The community center in which Resurrection has met for more than ten years was closed in 2018 because of violations of fire safety regulations and the creation of a "threat to the life of citizens." "I have dismissed [in the church] everybody except one secretary. I myself do not receive a salary. The whole budget goes for all this red tape, about 200,000 rubles a month and more. Plus it is necessary to pay rent for the premises where we are meeting now," Pastor Pavel figures.


Pavel Abashin was a protestant back in the time of the U.S.S.R. What is happening now reminds him of the 1970s, when for each worship service the congregation paid 50 rubles on an average salary of about 150 rubles a month. "But at that time the police officers took off their caps as a sign of respect when we began praying. Now they barge into the congregation, handcuff people, and do what they want. We supposedly have a law about disrespect for religious feelings, but nobody is about to respect our religious feelings," he says.


Vague concept of missionary activity


Before the adoption of the Yarovaya law and the appearance of the legal concept of "illegal missionary activity" such incidents hardly would occur, say experts TD has questioned. The director of the Center for the Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, defines the main problem of the new legal reality as the appearance among police and other security forces of functions of a struggle with "illegal missionary activity" while the very concept is extremely vague.


Roman Lunkin cites the example of when a case of "illegal missionary activity" was brought against a pastor of one of the evangelical churches for the fact that a Bible was found in his apartment. According to the amendments, any missionary activity is prohibited in residential facilities and religious literature in a priest's home is regarded as just that. The amendments of the Yarovaya package establish that missionary activity may be carried out only by registered organizations and only in places specifically designated for this.


In the opinion of the religion scholar, the Yarovaya amendments have become—in gross violation of the freedom of conscience prescribed in the constitution—a unique tax upon religious life for those denominations that the state considers as its enemies. This relates not only to Salafi Muslims, against whom the changes in the legislation were originally conceived, but also, for example, adherents of alternative Orthodoxy in the form of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, True Orthodox Church, and other "schismatic" churches.


Recently it is protestants of the evangelical type who have become the main target of this "repressive practice," the expert continues. According to information of the Forum 18 research center, of 159 persons and organizations that were subjected to prosecution for illegal missionary activity in 2018, 50 were Pentecostals and 39 were Baptists.


Even if such incidents pass without legal traces, as in the case of Word of Life, they take up a lot of effort and money. The decentralized structure of evangelical churches does not presuppose unified budgets and even mutual support funds, explains the first deputy ruling bishop and chancellor of the Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Konstantin Bendas. He himself in 2016 composed for fellow believers detailed instructions of how to follow all the new instructions of the Yarovaya amendments.


In conversation with Takie Dela in 2019, he acknowledged that when they wish, police and other bodies can interpret the concept of missionary activity in the direction they need and official warrant for conducting it will not help. Besides, because of their autonomous structure, many evangelical churches simply do not have the resources for the procedure of official registration, much less under conditions of constant pressure that are not limited to the Yarovaya law but involve utilities, tax, and fire services.


According to Bendas, some churches in the Russian Associated Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith are now on the brink of bankruptcy with debts in the several millions of rubles. "The issue is not just with Yarovaya and tax collection. The Orthodox religion is clearing the religious space for itself [in this way]. They are trying to work for destruction so that we will not exist here," Bishop Pavel Abashin believes.


"Courts and lawyers are an endless story. As if they are harassing you specifically," Pastor Albert Ratnikov maintains. Every month the church goes through at least one court session, but often many more. At the same time, the majority of evangelical churches are existing only on the donations of parishioners, the pastor notes.


Evangelical Christians questioned by Takie Dela say that the processes they describe are more or less universal for cities of the European part of Russia, where protestants now are living worst off. In May 2019, the European Court of Human Rights registered an appeal from the Nizhny Novgorod contingent of Pentecostal Christians of the Embassy of Jesus Bible Center. They are trying to appeal a violation of the Yarovaya law leading to a fine of 100,000 rubles in 2018. The court ruled the posting on the congregation's website of an interview with a woman student from Nigeria to be illegal missionary activity. (tr. by PDS, posted 28 July 2019)



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