Russian President Vladimir Putin Signs The Yarovaya Law, A Law That Violates Religious Freedom.

On July 7, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the “Yarovaya laws,” a sweeping move that curtails civil liberties related to preaching and proselytization outside “specially designated places.” Created under the guise of anti-terrorism measures, the law will take away most religious liberties of Russian citizens and foreigners within its confines, and has been called by critics as “unconstitutional” and not in line with international human rights and religious freedom standards.

All types of religious evangelization outside of churches will be punished under the new law. Foreign missionaries will only be allowed to speak at churches if they have a work permit from the government, discussions about faith with non-believers are missionary activities that are considered illegal and even convening and conversing because of religion in one’s home is prohibited. This applies to anyone over the age of 14, and furthermore, if religious activity goes unreported, the witness can be punished.

Forum 18 reports that violators will incur heavy financial penalties of up to 50,000 Roubles for individuals and up to 1 million Roubles for groups. 50,000 Roubles is equivalent to about six weeks’ worth of wages in the country. Telephone companies are also required to store calls and text messages, and must report them to the government, to their dismay, because this effort could cost billions. The broad nature of the law’s religious restrictions would make it “impossible” for religious organizations to operate, much less flourish. According to Voice of America, one major issue in Yarovaya is the vagueness of the definition of extremism and terrorism, which many fear could open to door to abuses by Russian officials.

The law was named after Irina Yarovaya, the law’s writer and Russian politician. Critics have called it the “Big Brother Law,” pertaining to its controversial facets. It took effect on July 20, and is a culmination of an anti-religion movement against religious expression. Similar efforts to limit missionary activity were not supported by the Russian government. The new restrictions were added “at the last minute” to the law. The New York Times reports that the law was “putatively put forward as a reaction to the October bombing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt,” a tragic event that took the lives of 224 people. Russia’s lower house of parliament (the Duma) started discussing the bill in May and it was approved in late June, virtually without debate.

“Neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.”

The severity and absoluteness of the law, and its direct contradiction of the basic human right of religious freedom has drawn the ire and concern of critics around the world who are active in the realm of religion and politics. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is one entity that has expressed condemnation. Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, chair of the commission, asserted: “Neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.” He also spoke about what this means for the Russian government and its constituents. “These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom. They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people.”

Critical personalities in Russia have also spoken. Lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice said that the day of the law’s passing was a “black day.” He commented that the Yarovaya is “a law which openly contradicts the gospel command 'go and make disciples' and, in addition, violates the constitutional rights of citizens.” After the law was passed, politician Dmitry Gudkov wrote on social media: “Hello, brave new world with expensive Internet, with jails for children, with global surveillance and prison terms for non-snitching.” Gudkov is one of Russia’s opposition parliamentarians, and had urged others in government to vote against the law. Mikhail Fedotov, Chair of the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, protested directly to Putin in July 1. He said that the amendments "create unjustified and excessive restrictions on the freedom of conscience of believers of all religions, and encroach upon the fundamental constitutional principle of non-interference by the state in the internal arrangements of religious associations." Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, commented that the bill is “a set of legislative amendments that severely undermine freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to privacy,” according to the New York Times.

“The impact it’s going to have on Christians is really quite extraordinary and very draconian.”

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Andrew Boyd, spokesperson for Release International, an organization that serves persecuted Christians, spoke out about what this could mean for Christians in Russia. “The impact it’s going to have on Christians is really quite extraordinary and very draconian, it will curtail preaching, teaching and sharing about the Christian faith… it will outlaw the sharing of your faith or the informing of others about your beliefs within the privacy of your own home.” Boyd said that the emergence of this extreme law in the 21st century is “an attempt to prevent radicalization” and the “spread of extremism.” According to him, the underlying premise of the law is that religion and extremism are the same, and religious people are terrorists. He said resolutely that the church or its faith will not be stopped by the law, but it will be more difficult for Christians to enact Jesus’ great commission, which is to make disciples of all nations.

Religion News Service reports that among those who will be directly affected by the Yarovaya laws will be those who have “strong evangelization programs,” including: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh–day Adventists and other evangelicals who are of independent origin. An LDS spokesman has expressed that they will not shut down the 30 church missionaries in the country. The Russian government has already halted the operations of many Jehovah’s Witnesses groups since early 2016, including the religious group’s St. Petersburg administrative center.

According to The Christian Post, thousands of Christian churches in Russia are convening in prayer and fasting as a response to the passing of the law. Hannu Haukka, president of Great Commission Media Ministries, said that about 7,000 evangelical churches are currently fasting and praying. He also commented that the aftermath of the new law brings Russia back to the Soviet Union in 1929. “Practically speaking, we are back in the same situation. These anti-terrorist laws are some of the most restrictive laws in post-Soviet history.” He also asked Christians around the globe to pray with Russian churches.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska made a statement against the punitive law in The Daily Signal. “Because Putin and his government cronies think they can make Russia great again by hoarding wealth, by abusing power, and by crushing any and all opposition. They strike a strongman pose but this is not real strength. True strength is rooting in virtue: selflessness and sacrifice on behalf of the weak.” He also said that although Americans do not have the power to “attempt to right every wrong in a broken world… we need to begin telling the truth about an increasingly aggressive actor in global affairs.” He also spoke about religious freedom. “Governments do not give us these rights and governments cannot take them away. These rights of speech and religion and assembly belong to every man, woman, and child because all of us are image-bearers of our creator.”

The Russian government has a history of restrictive practices towards religious groups as apparent in the International Religious Freedom Report for 2015. While granting privileges to the Russian Orthodox Church, it limited the activities of minority religious groups such as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals and Scientologists. Anti-extremism laws were used to “revoke the registrations of minority religious groups and impose restrictions on their religious practices, and their ability to purchase land and build places of worship.”

The Yarovaya-Ozerov packet can be found here in Russian.

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