russian-persecutionPMT 2017-012 by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra (Christianity Today)

After 32 cases, lawmakers review Yarovaya restrictions on religion. Top courts could follow.

One Sunday morning in August, three policemen came to Don Ossewaarde’s home in Russia, where the Baptist missionary from Illinois was holding his weekly Bible study.

“Afterwards, they took me to the police station and charged me with conducting missionary activities in violation of a new law that took effect on July 20, 2016,” Ossewaarde wrote. “At a court hearing, I was found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of 40,000 rubles, which is over $600.”

Ossewaarde was snagged by Russia’s new anti-terrorism law that President Vladimir Putin approved last summer. The “Yarovaya law” calls for tighter restrictions on missionaries and evangelism, and has resulted in at least 31 prosecutions since it went into effect in July.

But now that law might be getting a second look.
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Ossewaarde appealed his case three times, and has worked his way up to Russia’s Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling within the next few weeks. He also appealed to the Constitutional Court; if judges accept the case, the consequences could be immense.

“This makes Ossewaarde’s case the first under the `anti-missionary’ amendment to reach this level in the Russian courts, and the first to issue a challenge to the legislation itself,” Forum 18 reported. “The Constitutional Court, if it accepts the appeal, will examine whether the amendment contravenes the provisions of the Russian Constitution.”

It wouldn’t be the only review. Last week, a working group created by the Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, began to review the Yarovaya law, reported the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin. Putin conceded in September during elections that the unpopular law may need to be “adjusted to not put people in a difficult position.”

Those difficult positions include:

being charged for not using a church’s full name on phone bills.
allowing children onto a playground within hearing distance of sermons.
handing out New Testaments on a train.

All are accusations that have been made against Protestants under the new law, reported Forum 18 in its analysis of all cases thus far.

Officially, the Yarovaya law requires missionaries to have permits, makes house churches illegal, and limits religious activity to registered church buildings, among other restrictions. Individuals who disobey can be fined up to $780, while organizations can be fined more than $15,000.

The law has drawn protests from the Protestant Churches of Russia, as well as the European Evangelical Alliance and USCIRF (the US Commission on International Religious Freedom).

But the application of the law has been seen as “a very huge question mark,” as Slavic Gospel Association communications manager Joel Griffith told Mission Network News after the law’s passage last summer.

Months later, there is still no clear answer.
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Missionaries can only operate as formal representatives of state-recognized religious associations. But not having written proof of that has been evidence of both innocence and guilt, according to Forum 18.

“Whether such cases end in conviction or acquittal appears to rest on, firstly, the ability of police or prosecutors to link the defendant with a particular association, and secondly, whether the judge decides to uphold an individual’s constitutional right to share beliefs as a private citizen,” Victoria Arnold reported for Forum 18.

To keep reading:

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