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EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTS OF EURASIA: ACTIVE MISSION UNDER LIMITED FREEDOM

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RISU.ORG.UA 2016
At the backdrop of major events and processes in Eurasia’s religious life, the situation of religious minorities seems indicative, perhaps the most vulnerable of them being Protestants.
Typically, Evangelical Protestants experience the restrictive policy of the state earlier than the others. Therefore, what happens to them may serve to illustrate a larger trend to limit freedom, which poses a threat to the whole of civil society and the region as a whole.
Protestantism in Eurasia (the former Soviet Union, which was organized around Russia) is presented mainly by late Protestant denominations – Baptists and Pentecostals who from the first days of their history had to live and survive in conditions of limited freedom. But the nature of the restrictions changed - from religiously motivated discrimination to the atheistic fight against the religion of totalitarian suppression, to the selective approach, distinguishing between friend-or-foe, “historical and non-historical.” In the last classification Protestants were generally depicted as “non-historical” and “foes” – no matter how long they live here and whatever hard they serve the community.
Evangelical Protestants are seen as part of Western Christianity and the culture, and are therefore automatically transferred to the category of foreign agents. But the main feature of which is a pain guardian of local traditions, is missionary activity. In contrast to the “historical” denominations, evangelical Protestants appeal to modernity and compensate for their poor history by social and missionary activity. In other words, their mission cannot be active because it is the mission that allows Evangelical Protestants to exist.
However, the nature and form of the mission inevitably changes - with the restriction of religious freedom comes the era of ambiguity, secrecy, codes. There comes the time of the so-called “insiders.” These are evangelical Christians who are indistinguishable from ordinary people by appearance, they are involved in “normal” communities and achieve recognition, but are “agents of influence.” Their motive is witnessing – by their life, work, success, relationships. Insiders find their vocation in alien religious environments (in Orthodoxy or Islam), in professional fields, public initiatives.
Why so? Because the very word mission has become dangerous. And this trend has developed a rather long time ago – as part of a broader anti-terrorism front and national security concern, inflated to madness. “TheYarova Laws,” adopted in Russia on 06.07.16 only recorded what was long felt in society.
Interesting was the reaction of the religious leaders. First the Protestants announced fasting and prayer, appealed to the president requesting not to sign a package of laws [1]. But after the law entered into force, the heads of denominations pretended that nothing happened and therefore there was no reason to worry. In an interview on the matter, which, by the way, quickly disappeared from the official website of the Evangelical Christians of Baptist faith, the head of Russian Baptists Alexei Smirnov said that “the law is commonsensical,” and Baptists are generally not engaged in missionary activities, they just preach the Gospel, and not promote their denomination. According to this logic, the missionary outreach is when people are invited to join a religious organization on behalf of the organization, and therefore they should delimit themselves to “mere Christianity”– without confession and address specifics. Experts note that this tactic is necessary for survival and that missionaries will have to refuse recognition of their activities and even belonging to the organization, so as not to put it under attack. “It creates a vicious circle: those groups that have not notified the authorities cannot engage in missionary activity, but their representatives claim that they are not involved in it,” the director of “Sova”Alexander Verkhovskyy [2] comments.
Not only the “missionary” activity may be dangerous, but also any other “religious” activities and even words. Thus, Mari Pastor Alexander Yakimov was brought to responsibility for “illegal missionary activity” only because he blessed the villagers on the occasion of feast.[3] Head of the fund for drug addicts “Open Heart” Pastor Pavel Duchenko was arrested in St. Petersburg for the “anti-Russian sermon”[4]. In Noyabrsk an illegal playground at the house of worship was dismantled, and Pastor Alexei Teleusa was fined (it should be specially noted that the camp employees included the citizens of Ukraine and USA) [5]. In Orel anAmerica was fined for studying the Bible at home with his friends [2]. In Biisk, an attempt of ASD Church representatives to tell about themselves (that is to present their activities in the first person) to the employees of the district administration was qualified as illegal missionary activity. [11] In the village of Suzanovo, Orenburg region, Baptist pastor Alexander Demkin was accused of “unauthorized children picket,” referring to the usual playground on the territory of the church. [13] There are other cases which the violators of anti-missionary law prefer not to disclose.
Interesting is the reaction lawyers who would have to defend the rights of believers. On July 18, the Slavic Legal Center organized a special webinar on materials which prepared guidelines for “religious organizations and believers,” where the first advice was to “stop the panic,” because “freedom of religion is subject to restrictions and regulation solely to ensure public safety. I.e. there has been no prohibition of faith, sermons and the like. There was a partial regulation of one of the activities of religious associations” [6, 3]. It is strange to hear from the experts that Christian missionary activity is only one part, which may be neglected.
Against this backdrop, even the usually politically correct co-chairman of the Advisory Council of Heads of Protestant Churches of Russia, member of the Public Chamber and Council for interaction with religious associations of RF President SergeiRyakhovskyy in his review of the law was much more adequate and, in my opinion, deserves a long quotation: “we live in a secular state and have the right to faith in God and dissemination of our religious beliefs. The church has a mission that we will perform at all times. in Soviet times the church has not obeyed the law when it prohibited to preach the Gospel. Today, any ban to preach the Gospel shall be similarly ignored, it is important to understand that. In the past 20 years, local municipalities, regional authorities did not allocate land to some denominations to build churches, and if they land was allocated, they were not allowed to build there. And now comes the prohibition to worship in residential premises, that is, we understand that this bill was prepared long ago. We can adapt to everything. I hope that my country, which I love, will not come to that, and we will not become again prisoners of conscience. But if it happens, I am ready to suffer for the first proclamation of the Gospel,”[7] said the bishop of Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith.
The bishop himself had yet no occasion to suffer. But two Americans who attended the anniversary conference in Kaluga with participation of Ryakhovskyy were detained over “religious ties” [12].
Obviously, the “the Yarovaya Laws” fulfill the state order to limit religious freedom and express the dominant mood not only in Russia but also in Eurasia as a whole, i.e .in the former Soviet Union, where Russia maintains a leading role. De jure, this approach poses a threat to all faiths, but de facto it protects the special role of the title, ‘own’, ‘state-recognized’ confessions that are satisfied with church religiosity and where the missionary outreach is not thriving. And on the contrary there is the presumption of guilt regarding Baptists and Pentecostals who are active in the missionary field.
Obviously, the Russian experience finds its application in the countries of Central Asia [8], in annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas [9], so that the “the Yarovaya Laws” will be in demand there. Experts note that in all these cases one and the same scheme is applied – the contrast between “traditional” and “non-traditional” faiths, and further marginalization of religious minorities as sects is justified thereby[8, 4; 9, 18-19].
There is no doubt that the "traditional" denominations will only benefit from such anti-sectarian and anti-missionary restrictions.
Judging by recent editions of the “YarovayaLaw package,” the ROC managed to make amendments and protect their exclusive rights. Thus, the victims are Protestants – the most active in proselytism and thus less “traditional”. Lawyers’ comments on this situation (for example, the case of Yakimov) are not devoid of irony: “If, after the decision of the Mari court Orthodox clergy are not fined to at least five thousand (rubles) on the same basis, it will be apparent discrimination against other faiths. Punitive court order logic in Mari El implies that the blessings without preliminary notice at social events should be punished,” lawyer Ina Zahrebina said. [10].
It should be clear for competent professionals (religious experts and lawyers): the Protestants will be urged to change their signs and forms of outreach, but it will not agree to stop. After all these missionary activity is not “one of the activities of religious associations,” but the “great vocation,” i.e. private and church calling. All this makes the conflict of religious minorities and the state almost inevitable. And if “European” way to settle such a conflict is to publicly defend one’s freedoms and rights, the “Eurasian” way is the escape of churches underground, radicalization of sermon, revival of religious enthusiasm and active personal outreach in the format “from heart to heart.” As the story of Protestants Eurasia testifies, they only benefitted from such conflicts.
Notes
  1. The petition against the law on missionary activity
  2. Elena Muhametshyna. The first victims of the Yarovaya Laws have become representatives of religious minorities
  3. Case of a Mari pastor: believers are fined for the realization of their right to freedom of conscience
  4. Ukrainian pastor expelled for anti-Russian sermon
  5. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/08/22/dubchenko/
  6. In Noyabrsk a pastor fined for “illegal” playground under Yarovaya laws
  7. Guidelines for religious organizations and believers in connection with the provisions of the Federal Law No. 374 “Law of Ozerov-Yarovaya”
  8. Bishop Sergei Ryakhovskyy: “I am ready to suffer the first for proclamation of the Gospel”
  9. Vitaliy V. Proshak and EvgenyGrechko. Challenges to Freedom of Religion in Post-Soviet Central Asian States Analytical Report. 
  10. Publication of Mission Eurasia. 2016
  11. WHEN GOD BECOMES THE WEAPON. Persecution based on religious beliefs in the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Report prepared by IPHR and CCL. April 2015
  12. Lawyer of “Sova” Vladimir Ozolin on the “Case of Yakimov” “I do not know how Orthodox leaders will perform at celebrations”
  13. R. Lunkin. Officials against the mission. Adventist church held liable for an attempt of religious education in administration
  14. R. Lunkin. Prayer is not for tourists. Two Americans fined for “religious ties”
  15. In Orenburg region, a pastor is accused of unauthorized children picket
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