Just three months ago, the Huffington Post published an article on religious freedom in Russia entitled, “Hopes of Religious Freedom in Former Soviet Union Fall Short.” The author explains that when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, many expected that religious freedom would flourish. I heard that hope expressed on my trips to Russia and Ukraine in the mid-90’s. However, that has not happened,
largely because the countries that emerged from the ashes of the USSR have repressed most religions, the main exceptions being Russian Orthodox Christianity and certain brands of Islam.
The repressed have included denominations of Christianity that are widespread in other countries, such as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.
Russia’s enactment of a law governing religion in 1997 has made it difficult for faiths besides Russian Orthodox Christianity to survive, let alone thrive.
Religions were required to register in Russia before 1997. The new law required them to reregister by 2001, and made it more difficult for them to do so. About 2,000 were unable to comply with the new regulations, and were disbanded.
The Russian Orthodox Church was required to reregister, too. But because the law gave it special status as Russia’s traditional faith, and because most government officials viewed it as the country’s only legitimate religion, it had no trouble reregistering.
This past week, the organization, Barnabas Aid, posted an article that sounded much like the book of Esther. Christians in Russia are calling for prayer and fasting because the government is considering legislation that will “introduce draconian new restrictions on freedom of religion similar to those that existed in the Communist era.”
The new law will require any sharing of the Christian faith – even a casual conversation – to have prior authorisation from the state. This includes something as basic as an emailed invitation for a friend to attend church. Even in a private home, worship and prayer will only be allowed if there are no unbelievers present. Churches will also be held accountable for the activities of their members. So if, for example, a church member mentions their faith in conversation with a work colleague, not only the church member but also the church itself could be punished, with individuals facing fines of up to 50,000 roubles (£580; USD770; €700). There are also restrictions on the extent to which churches can have contact with foreigners; for example, any non-Russian citizen attending a church service would be required to have a work visa or face a fine and expulsion from Russia.
The Duma adopted the amendments and on despite major protests by churches on Wednesday the bill was passed by the Council of the Russian Federation. It now goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin who has until July 20th to decide whether the bill will become law.
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Russia.