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Proposed restrictions in Russia plague evangelicals once again

MOSCOW (BP)??After helping Russian Christians score gains during recent years of religious freedom, evangelical missionaries were faced in late September with how to stay focused despite looming fears of government restrictions or even deportation.
Southern Baptist International Mission Board missionaries are expected to be among those least affected by nationalists’ latest attack on non?Orthodox Christianity, which came in the form of proposed restrictions on religious freedom passed by the lower house of Parliament Sept. 19.
New energy for the restrictions came as President Boris Yeltsin, in a surprise turnabout, agreed Sept. 18 to support a bill similar to one he had vetoed in July. It allows foreign missionaries only if they are invited by organizations that have existed in Russia at least 15 years.
International Mission Board leaders see this latest event as a fear tactic by the real enemy. They are asking for prayer that missionaries have the strength and wisdom to keep their hands to the plow, even in the midst of such public opposition.
“Satan would like nothing more than to get us all distracted by this and to pull back and stop sharing with people and building relationships,” said Matt Spann, administrator for the organization of International Mission Board missionaries in Russia. “We’re carrying on our work and trying to be obedient day by day to what the Lord leads us to do.”
Spann and his colleagues have gained the respect of Russians by learning the language and working as partners with the Russian Baptist Union, he added. Baptists have been active in Russia since before Soviet communism, but the wording of the bill leaves the union’s legal status up for interpretation.
The bill, which passed 358 to 6, is expected to win approval by the upper house almost immediately. Yeltsin agreed to support it as a concession to the Orthodox Church.
The bill names Russian Orthodoxy as the dominant faith that established and developed Russia’s spirituality and culture. It also names Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity in general as “traditional” religions.
Still, by establishing separate divisions of legal religious entities, it requires registration by some local religious bodies and leaves unclear for now to what extent certain believers may participate in such activities as education and creating and distributing literature.
U.S. Vice President Al Gore told Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin Sept. 22 during two days of unrelated, scheduled talks that this bill is as dangerous as the first one Yeltsin vetoed, according to news reports. The U.S. Senate threatened to curtail aid to Russia if Yeltsin signed that one.
U.S. congressmen, the Vatican, non?Orthodox religious groups and even breakaway sects of traditional religions in Russia oppose the bill. Opponents say it violates not only Russia’s 1993 constitution, which declares religions “equal before the law,” but also the Helsinki accords on human rights, which Russia has supported since 1976.
The bill would reverse religious freedom won in Soviet Russia in 1991 and promises to impede much of the evangelical activity that has developed since then. It also would highly restrict the activity of groups that operated underground to avoid registration during Soviet communism.
Further, it would eliminate missionary activity except as approved by religious groups which the government deems worthy of legal rights. And it would curtail activities of many groups without legal rights, unless they get permission from local government overseers. Evangelicals fear overseers could be hostile Orthodox leaders, non?Christian religious leaders or even atheists.
“You almost have to have a crystal ball to know what effect it could have,” Spann said. “So much seems to depend on how local government officials interpret it.”
Of course, that’s already the case in Russia and in many countries throughout the world. In some provinces outside of Moscow, Baptists already find it difficult to operate. Many local laws ?? recently passed ?? are more restrictive than the new national bill.
But by proving their staying power, missionaries believe they’ve attained friendships with Russian believers who have influence in Russian culture, said Mike Norfleet, who helps International Mission Board missionaries develop strategy throughout Eastern Europe. “Those are our tie?downs,” he said.
Norfleet believes missionaries must find the “way of God in all this,” he said. “The way of God is not written in the laws of men. (As) Russia is struggling for its identity … the fervor of patriotism that leads men toward nationalism can also lead them toward truth and light.”

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  • Marty Croll