East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

The New Russian Law on Religion: What Is the Fallout for Evangelicals?

Mark Elliott

Most Russian Evangelicals appear to be taking the new law in stride. The attitude often is: "The Bible tells Christians to expect persecution; we have endured it from the government before; we can do it again; we have experience in survival; and the law might not be all that bad if it blocks the cults." Also, rightly or wrongly, many Evangelical Christian-Baptist leaders, representing a group registered more than 15 years, feel protected from the law's severities. The Western concepts of religious rights for all and the championing of equality before the law are not nearly so deeply felt as is the old Russian saying: "For every law, there is a way around it."

Western ministries appear to be much more exercised by the new law than are Russian Evangelicals, which is understandable. Missions from abroad have a keener sense of human rights, they appear to be more vulnerable, and they definitely bear the brunt of Communist/nationalist anti-Western chauvinism. Under the circumstances, Western ministries naturally are scrambling to determine what the law will mean in practice. Christian lawyers are signing on many new clients. Various position papers are being drafted and innumerable strategy sessions are being held to consider alternatives.

The options appear to be three: protest, accommodate, or leave. A public protest of the law held at the entrance to Gorki Park in Moscow on 7 October 1997 drew a decidedly modest crowd (perhaps 500, judging from the two sets of photos I saw). U.S. congressional action garnered more attention, but seemed to be positively welcomed by Communists, nationalists, and the law's other supporters as concrete evidence of Western interference in Russian domestic affairs. Western public protest does appear to have helped scuttle restrictive legislation on religion in 1993. Now, it is debatable whether or not this approach is effective. Programs to instruct post-Soviet populations in religious rights as part and parcel of man's God-given dignity might be a better, long-term approach. However, in the short run, highlighting specific instances of discrimination and arbitrariness, as in the Khakassia and Mari El cases (see accompanying chart), does still seem to be advisable and productive.

Another form of public protest involves challenging the new law before the Russian Constitutional Court. Would this court defy Yeltsin who signed the law? It would be uncharacteristic for it to do so. Regardless, a court case would provide the opportunity to underscore the law's glaring violation of the Russian Constitution and various international treaties to which Russia is a signator. But will enough Duma representatives support a challenge before the Court? Ninety are needed and, given the huge margin of victory for the religion law, that may be more Duma members than can be convinced to sponsor a court challenge.

More ministries appear inclined to accommodate than to protest too openly. To date, proceeding as usual has been the rule for most, albeit with a lower profile. While the law, on paper, makes life extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many Western groups, life goes on, and the difference between the letter of the law and the present lack of widespread enforcement just underscores again the contradictions and complexity of Russian life. Most groups, however, do expect the law to grow teeth sooner or later, and, consequently, are considering various forms of accommodation. Some are seeking, or will seek, shelter under the Evangelical Christian-Baptist (ECB) umbrella. As a group that passes the law's 15-year-rule for favored status, aligning with the ECB very likely will give some legal protection to some groups in some locations, but probably not uniformly. Even the ECB itself was recently challenged in Mari El under the new law (see chart on p. ), so enforcement may be stricter than required, as well as more lenient than required, depending on the whim of local authorities.

Accommodation in the form of quiet submission to bribery likely will accentuate the unevenness of enforcement across 11 time zones. If one doubts the probability of missions succumbing to bribery, read or reread East-West Church & Ministry Report articles on the subject: 5 (Winter 1997) 8-11. Missionary payments to officials to expedite all manner of transactions and permissions appear to have been fairly commonplace before the new law. Is there any reason to expect that it will not increase with over 70 pages of implementing regulations? For better or worse, it is life in Russia--and at least it can be stated that missionaries appear to resort to paid influence far less systematically and far less routinely than do Russians, including Russian believers.

Ministry efforts may become more difficult in strongly Communist "Red Belt" regions such as Orel, Kursk, and Volgograd, while missions may become even more concentrated in such relatively democratic centers as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhnii Novgorod, Ekaterinburg, and Samara. Reregistration as a humanitarian or educational organization, with personnel using student, educational, and business visas, will be the route some Christian ministries will take. Some likely will be successful in these shifts and others will not be, based on infinitely varied local circumstances and relationships. In any case, almost everything depends on relationships in Russia, no matter what the law.

Finally, some Russian Christian attorneys are arguing that the law was so poorly written that it contains unintended loopholes, the largest being the apparent exemption from the under-15-year-rule restrictions for groups that can prove affiliation with a central religious association. Only time will tell how successful this tactic will be, but there is no denying that many groups have been convinced, or have convinced themselves, that this stratagem will work. Frankly, I fear, if it does work well in the short run, it will simply increase the likelihood that the Duma will consider even more restrictive measures, which could very well happen. Metropolitan Kyril, for one, has already expressed deep disappointment with the present legislation, showing his disdain for non-Orthodox believers by stating that even Arctic [sic] penguins could secure religious registration under the September 1997 law.

Those Western missionaries who do not stay to protest, and who do not accommodate as best they can, will leave. Surprisingly, I know of no public announcements of church or parachurch departures so far, but I believe some groups probably will exit Russia rather than abide some of the requirements of accommodation. Some groups likely will redeploy to less-restrictive republics with sizable Russian populations, including Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, and Kazakhstan, using them as bases for short-term ministry into Russia and as training locations for Russian citizens. Other groups may depart the former Soviet Union altogether, a shift that would accelerate, regardless of Russian circumstances, if China became more amenable to a Western missionary presence.

East Central Europe is another region that is bound to feel the impact of the Russian law, especially as Orthodox churches are emboldened to follow the Russian--and Greek--example in discriminating against non-Orthodox. In July 1997, Macedonia passed legislation favoring Orthodox, Muslim, and Catholic believers over other religious groups. In Bulgaria the Orthodox Church is pressuring the parliament to follow the example of Russia and Macedonia. Washington human rights attorney Lauren Homer, in a 5 December 1997 U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing, reported that "virtually all of the former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries are considering similar legislation." Nick Nedelchev, executive director of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance, put it quite succinctly in a 5 November 1997 letter: "All people need to know that what happened in Russia very easily can happen in all other Eastern Orthodox countries, including Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. It's already happened in Macedonia."

Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Mark Elliott, "The New Russian Law on Religion: What Is the Fallout for Evangelicals," East-West Church and Ministry Report, 5 (Fall 1997), 4-5

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

East-West Church & Ministry Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe