Russia’s New Proselytism Ban

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.

15 thoughts on “Russia’s New Proselytism Ban

  1. Thanks for your insight Daniel.

    When I look at laws like this, I hope that those who complain about how the church is run, and who feel compelled to snipe about petty concerns here in North America realize our brothers and sisters are facing real oppression.

  2. Looking at the geopolitics of Europe, I think that Russia as we know it is going to collapse and disintegrate in the next two to three years. This law may be the thing that seals the country’s fate. The kingdom of God will roll forth, and even a man like Putin might as well stretch forth his hand to stop the Missouri river as to hinder the progress of the church.

  3. I thought right-wingers loved Putin. Don’t you people support the brutal crackdown of gays and feminists in Russia? Wasn’t it just last year that conservatives were saying Putin was preferable to Obama? However, now that his tyranny is affecting Christian proselytizing in Russia…you are changing your tunes? LOL

  4. @Kay

    I don’t know who you mean by “you people” or why you have adopted your particular tone.

    I don’t consider Millennial Star to be a “right-wing” site. Nor do I see evidence that it has cheered crackdowns, loved Putin or is changing its tune. The Church has had a steady, careful and measured stance consistent with the 11th and 12 Articles of Faith.

    Then, there is looming conflict to worry about. See

    This is no laughing matter.

  5. Kay, if you look at the published article that I linked to ( as well as other things I’ve written and published)I think you will see that I can hardly be called a lover of Putin. I think my record in that regard speaks for itself.

    I do wish conservatives had been more forceful in condemning Putin’s anti-homosexual legislation, because this and the anti-religious measures are two sides of the same intolerant coin. I believe I at least briefly mention the homosexuality issue in that article as well ( I can’t remember if that remained after rounds of edits or not). But Russia’s laws on that front are abhorrent as well.

  6. I recall a friend who had been on a mission to Yugoslavia where they weren’t allowed to proselyte. It seemed they were just there in case someone had a question, possibly to prevent citizens of that country who believed from having to engage in speech that was considered violative of law.

    He would joke that he and his companion would take turns giving the sermon for Sunday services. And on the third Sunday (traditionally when the high councilor speaks in established congregations), they would just sleep.

    I trust those involved in the Church’s efforts in Russia to handle this as wisely as possible. At least, I won’t be opining about how their actions are wrong-headed.

  7. “I thought right-wingers loved Putin. Don’t you people support the brutal crackdown of gays and feminists in Russia? Wasn’t it just last year that conservatives were saying Putin was preferable to Obama? However, now that his tyranny is affecting Christian proselytizing in Russia…you are changing your tunes? LOL”

    Putin and Obama are virtually indistinguishable with respect to their attitude towards religious liberty. And neither are shy about using the apparatus of the state to force churches to pay fealty to Caesar.

  8. @Leo…how much more right-wing can a site get? This is absolutely a site with a far right of center perspective.

    @Michael W…when did Obama or anyone else place religious restrictions on the Mormon church’s practices or their missionary services?
    Or are you referring to the fact that bigots who open to the public (in terms of the services or goods they are offering) being prevented from discriminating based on race, gender or sexual orientation?

  9. Kay,

    You do realize that Putin is a far left winger, right? After all, he really has not strayed from his Communist background and that is about as far left as you can get. Totalitarian governments are to the left. That is why the right does not care for socialism (communism’s little brother). The fascists in WWII were on the left (National SOCIALISTS).

    I have never seen a regular poster here show any support for Putin which further supports the understanding that the far left is all about restricting freedom, although the means and methods vary widely.

    “Don’t you people support the brutal crackdown of gays and feminists in Russia?”

    No, that would be the far left in Russia, and the left in America that works to align itself continually with Islamic groups. I am continually amazed at how the left has allowed itself to be purchased by middle east petro-dollars that exist to continue the ” brutal crackdown of gays and feminists” and how the left works so hard to protect Islamists.

    But, it does make for an awkward message when one would rather beat on a religious institution that is headquartered in what is generally viewed as the second most gay-friendly major US city after San Fran.

  10. “when did Obama or anyone else place religious restrictions. . .”

    You seem utterly ignorant of the many federal cases working their way through the system, in just about every federal district and in every part of the country. The Obama Administration has been patently anti-religion freedom from the beginning, but it’s gotten worse in the past two years. And, it’s getting even more chilling.

  11. @Kay

    In order to have a civil and productive discussion, it would be helpful for you to define “right wing” and “far right.” Merely using those phrases as undefined labels or insults helps no one.

    And this article from a site that considers itself a voice of the American Left shares some of my concerns about sabre-rattling against Russia and quotes the German foreign minister to that effect.

    This is a time for sober reflection rather than facile labels.

  12. I put my faith in the prophecy Joseph Smith made about the important role members of the then Russian Empire would play in the events of the Last Days. I do not know how this will come about but I do not fear for my brothers and sisters there. It is my brothers and sisters in Syria I fear for. Isaiah wrote of great destructions that face them.

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