GettyImages 546462596 210x300 Putin’s New Law Restricts Non Orthodox Christians In Russia

Russian orthodox monastery at the Serpukhov town. Getty Images

It was on Christmas in 1991 that the Soviet flag flew over the Kremlin in Moscow for the last time. Only a few days earlier, representatives from eleven Soviet republics met in the Kazakh city of Alma-Ata and announced that they would no longer be part of the Soviet Union. But with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and the blossoming of personal freedom, a new window of opportunity for Christian evangelism began. The collapse of Soviet communism was a great answer to prayer to Christians around the world. I remember vividly, however, that many Christian leaders and missiologists expected that this open window for evangelism in Russia would last no more than fifteen years before new restrictions would be imposed once again. We thank God that we are now ten years past that time.

Several weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law controversial “counter-terrorism amendments” that have alarmed many civil and religious liberty proponents. The new law was first proposed by the nationalist United Russia party lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, and is considered the most restrictive religious liberty measure in post-Soviet history. With regard to provisions affecting all non-Orthodox churches, the new law places broad limitations on missionary work, including preaching, teaching, and engaging in any activity designed to invite people into a religious group. These new laws target all Christian groups outside of the Russian Orthodox Church, even though in an interview published in early August, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia stated that the Russian Orthodox Church is growing rapidly, and in fact, over the past six years, has added 5,000 churches and 10,000 new clerics. Under the new law, in order to share one’s Christian faith with others, Russians must now obtain a government permit through a registered religious organization. Christians can no longer evangelize anywhere, but can only do so in within churches and religious sites. Further, the new restrictions apply to activities in private homes, and online as well. Thus, under the new law, Christians in Russia will be unable to email friends an invitation to church or to a home Bible study. The penalties for violation of this new law are severe; those found guilty of violations of the new anti-evangelism law face fines of up to US $780 for an individual and up to $15,500 for a church or organization, a large sum of money for most Christians and churches. Moreover, any foreign nationals who violate this law face deportation.

These new laws will make life for non-Orthodox Christians in Russia far more complicated with many believers finding themselves in exile in their own nation, and subject to reprisals for their faith. Rev. Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Protestant Churches of Russia, and other evangelical leaders have called the new law a violation of religious freedom and personal conscience. In a letter to President Putin, the church leaders stated:

The obligation on every believer to have a special permit to spread his or her beliefs, as well as hand out religious literature and material outside of places of worship . . . . is not only absurd and offensive, but also creates the basis for mass persecution of believers for violating these provisions. Soviet history shows us how many people of different faiths have been persecuted for spreading the Word of God. This law brings us back to a shameful past.

Indeed it does. The great persecution of Christian believers, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, during the communist era in Russia, makes this new law a major step towards Soviet-style authoritarianism. Please pray for all Christians in Russia as many will begin a new era of underground activities. Sadly, they have been through all this before, and I suspect that it will never stop these believers from worshipping God and sharing the love of Jesus Christ with others, government permit or not. After all, I am certain that many of them would say that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 is not only for times of freedom, but for all times and for all nations. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” A useful reminder for all of us.