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Harassment in Russia reminds missionaries time may be short

MOSCOW (BP)–When Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a controversial new religion law in September 1997, critics around the world cried that Russia’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion had been violated.
Fifteen months later, systematic nationwide persecution of religious minorities has not materialized, but local officials have used the law as a pretext to harass and even torment evangelical missionaries and congregations from one end of the country to the other.
Southern Baptist missionaries worry that constant harassment and disruption will discourage believers and convince frustrated missionaries to give up and leave the country.
In 1997, the powerful Russian Orthodox Church praised the federal law, titled “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association,” for protecting people from the “cults and sects” that flooded into Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In practice, however, the new law has been used against not only Hare Krishnas and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also against mainstream Christian groups outside the deeply rooted Russian Orthodox tradition.
“The general effect of the new law has been that officials at all levels, from immigration offices to local building supervisors, have felt a mandate to clamp down on unwanted, non-Orthodox religions and outsiders,” said Russell Kyzar, a Southern Baptist missionary in Moscow. “So they use their personal authority to institute new rules or deny permissions in order to demonstrate that they are making a personal attempt to apply this law.”
On July 1, for example, an official in Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs decreed that one-year multi-entry visas for religious work would no longer be granted. Only three-month visas would be issued for religious work — meaning they had to leave the country every 90 days and apply for new three-month work permits. No other types of visa were limited to such a short period.
The decree forced some missionaries to disrupt their ministries and spend large amounts of time and money traveling out of the country to reapply for visas. Several Roman Catholic workers were required to return to their home countries in South America to renew their visas.
Many non-Orthodox Russian Christians believe such restrictions are inspired by Russian Orthodox authorities.
“Our Russian Baptist brothers believe this is all the work of the Orthodox Church, and I concur,” said Gerald Cornelius, a Southern Baptist missionary in Chelyabinsk, located east of the Ural Mountains in southern Russia. “We do not know if the Orthodox Church will succeed in seeing that the door is closed to western evangelicals. They are certainly making it hard on all of us.
“It will be very costly to renew visas every three months. Going through the process will be time-consuming, and if we have to leave the country to renew our visas, it will break the rhythm of ministry here.”
While Christian minorities in Moscow have experienced difficulties, the worst intolerance has been seen in rural areas across southern Russia and in the Far East cities of Khabarovsk and Magadan. Harassment has been leveled against Pentecostals, Baptists, the Salvation Army, Adventists, Roman Catholics, Protestants and even a dissident Russian Orthodox church employee.
Congregations have been evicted from rented facilities. Evangelism campaigns have been banned. Worship services have been broken up. Missionaries have experienced serious visa complications. Missionaries and congregations have been heavily taxed.
Local officials based those decisions on their freedom to interpret the 1997 religion law.
Soon after Adventists in Venev, about 100 miles south of Moscow, began renting a cinema for their worship services, the local government ordered them out. When the congregation protested, the government decreed no publicly owned building could be made available to religious groups. That decision reportedly was reached in a meeting between city officials and four Orthodox priests, but no representatives of other Christian groups.
The result was that not only were the Adventists evicted, but so was a Baptist congregation that had been renting the cinema for two years.
“The Orthodox priests actively spoke out against us” at the meeting, Baptist pastor Igor Gorshkov told Keston News Service. “They also are publishing articles in the local press claiming that Baptists are enemies of the Russian people.”
It apparently mattered little to district administrators that the Baptist congregation was affiliated with the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists — Russia’s oldest and largest evangelical union and one formally registered under the new religion law. Nor did it make any difference that the new law contained no provisions for such a decree.
“In principle the law does not require us to issue such a decree,” admitted Vladimir Rotin, director of the Venev district education committee. “But it also does not forbid us to do so.”
Igor Shelopayev, a religious affairs official for the area, said: “In general, such clubs should be for atheists. These are educational establishments, but the Protestants have turned them into religious centers.”
The movements of missionaries and even some local believers are being limited in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, said Southern Baptist missionary Connie Robbins.
“Starting this year we have seen limitations of movement,” she said. “The idea seems to be that wherever you live is the only place you can be.
“This has caused problems for me and some of the other evangelical missionaries in this region. It has even been a small problem for nationals. Some are being told that whatever church their membership is in, that is the only place they can work.”
Some evangelical mission groups left the region because the new restrictions prevented them from doing what they came to do, she said.
“The limitations seem to be another way of trying to stop evangelical work in the country,” she said. “If the government, backed by the Orthodox Church, is successful, many evangelical missionaries will leave due to increasing hardships living in the country.”
Some relief on the three-month visa limitation may be emerging, said Dick Beaudoin, who handles visa and registration matters for Southern Baptist missionaries in Russia.
Applications for one-year visas were denied after the three-month rule was handed down, and protests were lodged with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said. Not long after, the foreign ministry issued an addendum that allowed some one-year visas for religious work. In September, Southern Baptists received their first one-year visa since the decree.
“This is a ‘praise the Lord’ if in fact this rule has been reversed,” Beaudoin said. “But it still leaves us with a rule they can go back to on a case-by-case basis and deny an application whenever the mood strikes!”
The religion law and its whimsical local interpretations affect evangelical missionary work in Russia in the same way the country’s very tenuous political and economic climate do, said Charles Hardie, a Southern Baptist missionary serving in Novosibirsk in south-central Russia.
“We just have to do what we can at the moment and not know the future,” he said. “We do know that, whatever the future is, God is the one in charge.
“It causes one to be very diligent in training new believers so they will continue sharing with others and walking with the Lord,” he said. “It makes us aware that we may not have as much time as we sometimes think, and therefore we must do the work now.”

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  • Mark Kelly