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Mission Unacceptable: How the Yarovaya Law is Taking Effect in Russia

Mission Unacceptable

Olga Filina – How the First Amendment of the Yarovaya Law is Taking Effect 

While everyone is waiting for the “Yarovaya Law” – a package of anti-terrorist amendments made to Russian legislation (sections 374-FZ and 375-FZ) – to take full effect (expected to happen in July 2018), it should be noted that one section of the law is already at work. The impact of this law since August 2016 is very significant. More than 500 cases have been brought to court, more than 200 of which were publicized, and more than 4 million rubles ($64,600) worth of fines have been collected from individuals and organizations. Surprisingly, this section of the law is not affecting the IT sphere, where the “Yarovaya Law” was expected to have the most notable impact, but rather, it is impacting Christians.

“The law introduced Russia to the definition of what is often referred to as ‘missionary activity’ for the first time,” explains Vladimir Ryakhovsky, an honorary lawyer for Russia, and a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. He also described ways that people can spread his teaching to determine who is on their side and who is not. Accordingly, he outlined such concepts as “illegal missionary activities,” “illegal missionaries,” and so on. We at the Slavic Legal Center, in cooperation with the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, conducted a study of all the cases that have resulted from the “Yarovaya Law” during the past two years, and we have found that this law does not deal with religious extremists, let alone terrorists. Instead, it harshly regulates the actions of the most innocuous of believers.

The authors of this study shared some of their findings with Ogonyok, and the picture they paint is concerning. However, you can judge for yourself:

In Noyabrsk, a major city in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region, pastors from the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists were fined for building a children’s playground near the House of Prayer, because the police found religious literature inside the church, and they claimed that the children could be subjected to “illegal missionary activity” by reading these books.

In the Ivanovo region, a husband and wife prayed together before eating while out to dinner with friends, and their prayer was considered an “illegal missionary activity,” and the couple themselves were declared an “unregistered religious group.”

In Biysk, several Seventh-day Adventists visited the local administration building to present their ministry activities, but the administration claimed this was an “illegal missionary activity” and sued them.

“There are practically no Protestants that haven’t been impacted by the law,” says the pastor of a registered Protestant church in Moscow who chose to remain anonymous. “I lead a congregation of 50 people, and almost every Sunday a police squad interrupts our services. They always ask us the same questions: ‘Where are your registration documents? What do you do here? Where do you get the money to pay your rent? Why are you selling books? Do you have any new congregants?’ And after we talk with them, representatives from the Ministry of Internal Affairs inspect our books to make sure they have our church’s full name written on them, as required by the law. If they don’t find anything wrong, then they just come back the next week. Sometimes, local authorities dress up like civilians and knock on our door, asking to be let in so they can ‘pray.’ If we don’t let them in, they film us turning them away and then use the footage against us. And if we do let them in, then they take pictures inside the church to identify ways that we are violating the ‘Yarovaya Law.’ We have had to pay several fines for ‘illegal missionary activity.’”

Many Muslims are also being fined. For example, in Voronezh, 46-year-old Rahim Faradzhov, who moved to Russia from Azerbaijan in 1989 and owns a well-respected construction firm, tried to challenge the fines he was issued under the “Yarovaya Law.” In 2017, Rahim organized a prayer group for his Muslim friends so they could worship together in private. But last May, local police raided one of their prayer meetings and searched for religious literature. When they didn’t find anything, they fined Rahim 5,000 rubles ($78.60) for “illegal ministry activity” under the “Yarovaya Law.” And in the last year, Rahim has been issued five more fines. When it became impossible for he and his friends to pray together, Rahim went to the courts, arguing that he wasn’t forcing anyone to believe in Islam, but to no avail.

While Christians and Muslims are the main groups being charged with “illegal missionary activity” under the “Yarovaya Law,” yoga participants and gymnasts are also being targeted. In fact, a group of yoga teachers was recently fined, even though they stipulated that they are not affiliated with a particular religion, and a group of gymnasts was fined after saying they were Orthodox.

“In no other developed country has legislation attempted to define or limit ‘missionary activity,’” Vladimir Ryakhovsky concludes. Similar legal activity is only found in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, so it is surprising that Russia has adopted this same practice. The Human Rights Council and representatives from many religious organizations in Russia opposed the adoption of the “Yarovaya Law” (it is enough to recall the harsh statement of Kamal Khazrat Samigullin, head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Tatarstan: “This is an infringement of our rights and a source of humiliation for Muslims”). The Federation Council also tried to block the law, but nothing helped.

Surrounded on All Sides

The story of the “Yarovaya Law’s” adoption is quite surprising. While it was being developed, the media was focused on the parts pertaining to the IT field, rather than anything related to missionary activity, and the State Duma Committee for Public and Religious Organizations did not examine the law at all. Rather, it was developed in strict secrecy and with great haste. Even after it was adopted, no explanation was given for the law’s creation, and authorities have become increasingly aggressive in their carrying out of the law as time has passed.

“The letter of this law, which is certainly far from perfect, is not so bad,” argues Roman Lunkin, head of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The context in which it was adopted is important. Within the framework of our project ‘Encyclopedia of Religious Life in Russia,’ we constantly examine the attitude toward believers in the Russian Federation. During the last two years, coinciding with the adoption of the law, a tendency has emerged: political figures are refusing to engage in religious policy (they dismiss their advisers and have abolished advisory bodies), transferring all related powers to local law enforcement agencies.” And unfortunately, when local authorities are instructed to engage with a certain group, they immediately see that group as the enemy.

The “Yarovaya Law” claims to address several social fears, including “foreign agents,” or groups that people view as sectarian cults. This Philistine-based kind of thinking has resulted in a multifunctional legal “club” that deals with “antisocial entities.” And, frankly, even if this law didn’t exist, it would still be worthwhile to examine the real attitude toward religious freedom in a country dominated by Orthodoxy.

In order to expand their authority, this new legal “club” launched a full-frontal attack. Their first move was to add a new section to the Code of Administrative Offenses, which stated that any religious organization that doesn’t indicate its full name in its church and published literature or audio/visual products must pay a fine of 30,000-50,000 rubles ($471-$786). Just last week, Pentecostal Christians in the Altai region were fined for distributing improperly labeled New Testaments during an outreach event.

“I have many cases involving disputes over fines issued to mosques after they failed to include their full name on their buildings,” says Marat Ashimov, a Muslim human rights activist and member of the Republican Legal Defense Bar Association in the Mordovia region. “Fortunately, I’ve won six of these cases.”

The legal “club’s” second tactic was to require official representatives from every religious organization to register with their local Ministry of Justice office and obtain special documents certifying that they, along with the rest of their staff personnel, have approved “missionary status.” This process poses many challenges, as it is often unclear which representatives will be granted the authority to distribute the documents, and even if they do receive approval, their documents don’t guaranty their safety. Firstly, the authorities still find excuses to fine those with approved documents, and secondly, religious organizations often work with volunteers who don’t have documents, so they too are fined.

“The text of the ‘Yarovaya Law’ does not include any instruction for its interpretation, so it is interpreted quite liberally,” notes Konstantin Andreev, a member of the Protection Moscow Bar Association and expert council of the State Duma Committee for Public and Religious Organizations. “Since the inception of this law, policies have been put into practice by local law enforcement that severely limit freedom.”

The legal “club’s” third ploy was to confiscate private residences that were being used for religious meetings. The previously mentioned Rahim Faradzhov was fortunate that he set up his prayer group in a non-residential building. If he had used his home, it could have been taken from him, since the “Yarovaya Law” prohibits religious activity in private residences. This means that home groups of any kind are illegal.

Foreign Missionary Workers

Special attention must be given to foreigners in Russia, as an amendment made to the “Yarovaya Law” states that foreign citizens can only engage in missionary work in Russia if a religious organization that is registered in Russia hires them specifically for missionary services. In other words, they must have a work visa, like any foreigner, and they are only allowed to carry out ministry activities in the region where their host religious organization is registered.

“This amendment took effect as soon as it was passed,” says Roman Lunkin. “In September 2016, two tourists from the US, Alexander Whitney and David Kozan, were each fined 3,000 rubles ($47) after meeting with their friend, Alexander Ratkin, Bishop of the Church of the Word of Life, in Kaluga. When they left the church, police officers were waiting for them, and they immediately took them to the police station to file a case under the “Yarovaya Law.”

At that point, the law wasn’t as harsh, so Whitney and Kozan were not expelled from the country, however, things are much stricter now. For example, in spring 2018, Kudzai Nyamarebwa, a Zimbabwe native and student at the Research Medical University in Privolzhsky, was involved in an outrageous case. As a devout Christian, Kudzai made a video to invite her classmates to a party with African songs, dances, and prayer at the Embassy of Jesus Church. In response, the local authorities fined the church 30,000 rubles ($471), because Kudzai didn’t use their full name in her video, and another 50,000 rubles ($785) for “illegal missionary activity” (Kudzai didn’t have the necessary missionary document). Eventually, the authorities decided to deport Kudzai, but thankfully, her lawyers drew enough international media attention to her case that the decision was revoked.

“But this is a one-time success, not a trend,” observed Konstantin Andreyev. “I have seen only four cases involving the deportation of foreign Christian students in the past six months. In each instance, the court’s decision, as is always the case with this law, depends on who filed the case. If the police did, the students have a chance, but if the prosecutor’s office is involved, things are much more difficult, and if special agencies are involved, then all hope is gone.”

Attempts to moderate the harsh behavior of local authorities were made by the Constitutional Court, which passed a ruling in April 2018 after receiving a complaint from Sergei Stepanov, a Baptist believer in Tambov. Stepanov was fined 10,000 rubles ($157) for inviting people to attend a service at his church, which he didn’t have the “missionary status” to do. The Constitutional Court urged the courts to refrain from labeling all religious activity as missionary work, but rather only those with “system-forming attributes.” Namely, missionary work is carried out by a “special circle of persons” (not just one person) who seek to disseminate information about their doctrine among “non-participants” in this religious group with the intention of inviting them to join their religion. It remains to be seen if the Constitutional Court’s efforts will have any impact.

As can be guessed, the “Yarovaya Law” has not affected the Orthodox Church. Many monks bring holy relics to Russia and participate in worship services (which should be considered missionary activity under the “Yarovaya Law”), but they are given humanitarian visas, rather than having to apply for work visas. Only once did the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate speak out against the “Yarovaya Law.” After a court in Vladivostok burned Bibles distributed by Protestant Christians gave out (their organization’s name wasn’t printed on it), Ksenia Chernega, the head of legal services of the Moscow Patriarchate, called the case “of great excess and concern.”

“Based on our field research, I would say that, in general, concern about this law among Orthodox believers is more common than one would think,” Roman Lunkin claims. “Many understand that the law creates fear of ministry and faith in society, and Orthodoxy is only safe because it is considered a secular state religion that only requires a nominal bond, rather than one’s personal allegiance.”

However, Russians do not seem to be very much taken with the idea of an invulnerable, but state-dependent church. As the Ogonyok reported in our last issue, for the first time in many years, the Russian Orthodox Church is no longer considered one of the top three most trusted institutions in the nation. In the midst of “anti-religious campaigns” and “witch-hunts,” trust is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.