Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe
Provincial Reports on the 1997 Russian Law on Religion:
Editor's Note: In January 1999, Moscow's Association for Spiritual Renewal, affiliated with U.S.-based Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries, hosted a conference for national representatives of its Evangelism and Church Planting Centers from across the former Soviet Union. Peter Deyneka Jr. asked participants to summarize the impact of Russia's 1997 law on religion on their ministry. Just as journalists have commented upon uneven enforcement of the law to date--serious restrictions in some locales and negligible interference in others--so too, the responses of conference participants suggest a contradictory pattern of enforcement.
Reports for the Worse
Salekhard, Yamalo-Nenetsky Autonomous Region
The law on freedom of religion has made ministry more difficult in our region. Today we are not allowed to preach the Gospel in schools or in any other educational institutions. Before the law was passed, we regularly visited children's homes and schools where Nentsy and Khanty children both live and study. We are no longer allowed to visit these institutions.
Ukhta, Komi Republic
There are frequent attacks from the Orthodox Church in the Komi Republic. These are in the form of slander and accusations of sectarianism, which hinder our ministry in general curriculum schools.
The law laid the groundwork for accepting Orthodoxy as the traditional church, and all others as sects. This has served as an occasion for people to express their negative attitudes about minority Christian movements. There was more freedom at the beginning of the 1990s than there is now.
People have become more cautious. Some don't go to [an Evangelical] church out of fear that they are betraying the "one, true faith" (Orthodoxy). Opportunities still exist, but great wisdom is required in carrying out evangelism as well as investing in local churches.
Reports of Ministry Unchecked
Ukhta, Komi Republic
There has been practically no change. We face minor local difficulties, which are resolved locally.
Vyshnii Volochek, Tver Oblast
The new law has not affected ministry in Tver Oblast. There has been some resistance by the Orthodox Church in some cities, but this occurred even before the new law was passed.
There have been few changes with regard to the law, except the problem of restrictions affecting Christian programs broadcast over radio and television. In comparison to the Communist regime, we now have the freedom to preach, evangelize, and rent facilities.
The situation with regard to the law has not changed substantially. However, local authorities have begun to request verification of an organization's registration and charter. No limitations have been observed in our region. During the past ten years it has been possible to carry out practically all activities in agreement with legal procedure. During the past year, it has become more difficult to work in schools and children's homes, but it is nevertheless possible.
Novyi Urengoi, Yamalo-Nenetsky Region
There are no problems with the law. This is a time of freedom. It must be used quickly and to the maximum, since there has never been a time like it.
There were never any particular problems as a result of the new law. But there is a sense that local bureaucrats are afraid to violate the law. For example, in July 1998, the director of education for the Murmansk city administration would not allow children to attend our summer camp. But the Lord inclined the hearts of the directors of children's homes, and they took the responsibility for sending their children to our camp. Also, the director of a local radio-television station would not give me air time for a sermon. She said that there is an agreement with the Orthodox bishop that only he can grant air time. But we contacted another radio company, and were then able to broadcast our Christmas program. Praise Him for this! Regarding preaching the Gospel, things have improved. It is possible, with practically no difficulty, to rent buildings for evangelism and use city streets and squares. It is only necessary to get permission in advance from the local administration.
The law which was passed in 1997 has strengthened the Orthodox Church's opposition to Evangelical Christians-Baptists. During the ceremonial opening of our new church in Krasnodar, some Orthodox came with posters which read: "This church does not have any relationship to the Orthodox Church." [Nevertheless,] preaching the Word of God has become much freer than it was 15 years ago.
Difficulties related to the new law arise with regard to the renting of halls for evangelistic services and ministry among children (in educational institutions, schools, boarding schools for orphans, hospitals, other institutions, and military troops). But in comparison to times when the Iron Curtain existed, we have considerable freedom.
Some restrictions have occurred with regard to the new legislation on religious associations: a ban on teaching in educational institutions by religious associations. Some school directors still allow this. Incidents forbidding evangelistic meetings in cultural institutions, houses of culture, movie theaters, etc., have become more frequent. [But] there is no comparison between the situation today and that of ten years ago. Ten years ago, we were not permitted to do anything. Today we have only slight restrictions.
There is a great difference [between the present time and the former Communist period]. In the past everything was forbidden, and many were even imprisoned. Now it is possible to work. Now is the time to fulfill the Great Commission. [However,] there is a ban on working with children in general curriculum schools. The Orthodox are often not pleased with our activities and make statements against us.
Nemchinovka Region, Moscow
We work in the Moscow-Mozhaisk region. Here everything depends on the specific locality. For example, in Puchkov, we do not have any particular difficulties. In the village of Korinsky and the cities of Ruz, Zvenigorod, and especially Mozhaisk, no public activities can be carried out without the blessing of the Orthodox priest.
Most, if not all, of the above respondents are Evangelical Christians-Baptists. As members of a religious group registered more than 15 years, they should be exempt from most of the restrictions of the 1997 law on religion--but local interpretation counts for everything.
The most common difficulties noted involve rental restrictions and increasing restrictions on ministry in schools, orphanages, hospitals, and prisons.
Orthodox influence upon state authorities to restrict non-Orthodox believers is commonplace.
Younger respondents compare today with the early 1990s unfavorably, while older respondents still compare today with the preglasnost era favorably.
"Provincial Reports on the 1997 Russian Law on Religion: Mixed Messages," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Winter 1999), 3-4.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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