For those who have not yet heard, Russia recently enacted an expansive new law against proselytism that may significantly hamper organized missionary efforts and severally curtail the freedom of members to speak about their faith to friends, and even family. This is a disturbing development for those who have deep love for the incredible Russian people. It is also another foreboding omen of increased repression and intolerance in Putin’s Russia. The First Presidency issued a very measured statement about the law, but has not yet announced concrete steps that it will take to come into compliance with the law.
Forum 18, a news service focused on religious freedom related topics, has published what appears to me to be the best description and analysis of the new law. What becomes clear when reading their analysis is how incredibly amorphous and broad the language of the law is. On an expansive reading of the law, it is possible that for Russians to even discuss their faith with their friends or neighbors without a permit will become illegal. And of course, the danger is that prosecutors and police officers in regions of Russia will take this law and use it to try to expel unfavored groups.
There is unfortunately already precedent in Russia for this. Laws meant to combat extremism have been used to suppress minority religious positions and even to silence views critical of the state or the Russian Orthodox Church. I wrote about some of these cases in a law review article published last year in the Virginia International Law Journal. While there are many in Russia with a deep respect for religious freedom, it only takes one prosecutor with an agenda to begin aggressively cracking down on freedom. And this law gives that power to prosecutors in abundance.
But fortunately, there are also some reasons for cautious optimism that at least some of the worst impacts of this law will in time be tempered. The Russian Constitutional Court has shown some willingness to strike down rights suppressing interpretations of Russian Law. For instance, it struck down an effort to break up Jehovah’s Witnesses assemblies that met without a permit in residential premises. It also reversed certain efforts at the regional level to ban religious texts such as the Bahatva Ghita or translations of the Koran which were labelled “extremist” by zealous prosecutors. I describe some of this in my Virginia Law Journal Article
Another reason for some cautious optimism is the European Convention to which Russia is a signatory. The convention promises religious freed to individuals living in member states. And the European Court of Human Rights is empowered to enforce this convention by imposing judgments on states which violate it. In the epochal case of Kokinakas v. Greece, the court affirmed that the right to proselytize is integral to religious freedom as it overturned a conviction under Greece’s then near complete proselytizing ban. I see some problems with the European Court of Human Rights case law in this area including the fact that at least two members of the court dissented and argued that proselytism was a violation of the rights of non-members rather than an integral part of religious freedom. But nevertheless, I believe there is reason to hope that any extreme manifestations of the ban such as a prohibition on sharing gospel messages with family and friends would be struck down.
Of course, both of these avenues to challenge the law raise similar concerns. Russia has shown itself fully capable of completely ignoring judgments of the European Court or even its own Constitutional Court. Recently, Russia even passed a law giving it the right to ignore European Court judgments. I nevertheless think there is reason to believe that Russia wants to avoid such adverse judgments and that a decisions striking down the application of the law will have an impact on the kinds of cases prosecutors bring and how the law is enforced.
Of course the potential for a future court judgment is cold comfort to members facing uncertainty and fear over this law. I suspect that the best approach for the time being will be for regional leaders of the Church in Russia to communicate with officials and to discern how they appreciate and plan to enforce the law. It seems likely to me that outright punishment of someone for speaking about the gospel in their own home is unlikely. Hopefully dialogue will allow the Church to avoid some of the dire restrictions that theoretically may be part of the law.
I also hope that we see Churches of various denominations unifying together. I am grateful to read leaders of the Baptist, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness community speaking out with one voice against the ban. I hope that we can join our voices. Together, we are much more powerful than when we are divided. I know from experience working with BYU’s annual International Law and Religion Symposium that we have worked hard to cultivate ties with members of various faiths in Russia. I pray that we will be able to use this opportunity to further advance our common interests.
At the end of the day I am cautiously optimistic despite what appears to be a truly extreme law. Religious faith in Russia endured the dark days of the Soviet Union. It will endure today as well. And from this crucible I suspect that members and missionaries in Russia will emerge with stronger testimonies and a greater appreciation for the Gospel.