Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders in Russia expressed hope that a restrictive law that came into force this week would not be used against the evangelistic work of Adventists but said they were ready to assist church members accused of violating it.
The law — part of a package of anti-terrorism legislation — outlines severe restrictions on evangelistic activity in Russia that, among other things, limit religious activity to registered church buildings and prohibit the free distribution of religious literature. Individuals who disobey face fines of up to 50,000 rubles (U.S.$765), while organizations could be fined up to 1 million rubles ($15,250).
“The Seventh-day Adventist Church and other Christian denominations in Russia oppose extremism and terrorism,” the Adventist Church’s Euro-Asia Division said in an e-mailed statement. “It goes without saying that it is important and necessary for governments to adopt measures to combat extremism and terrorism. We hope that the application of this law will apply exclusively to terrorist and extremist organizations and those who share their beliefs.”
The Euro-Asia Division, which is headquartered in Moscow, earlier appealed to President Vladimir Putin not to sign the law, and Russian believers observed a day of prayer and fasting. The legislation sailed through both houses of Russia’s parliament late last month, and Putin signed it into law on July 7. It came into force on July 20.
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The question now is how the law will be applied and whether its application will violate the Russian Constitution. Article 28 of Constitution states: “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.”
The division statement said local Adventist leaders would promptly address the relevant authorities with any concerns about the possible violation of church members’ constitutional rights and would seek to work with them to reach a resolution.
“If the constitutional rights of the faithful are violated, church leadership will provide all possible assistance and support,” it said.
The division also said it would partner with other Protestant denominations to prevent the possible constitutional violations. It earlier said it hoped to work with lawmakers to amend the law when the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, convenes for its fall session in September.
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The law has raised concerns among Protestant groups across Russia and abroad. The U.S. government has also weighed in.
“The anti-terrorism measures would, among other provisions, amend the 1997 Russian religion law by redefining ‘missionary activities’ as religious practices that take place outside of state-sanctioned sites,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement. “The new law thus would ban preaching, praying, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials outside of these officially designated sites. … Foreign missionaries also must prove they were invited by state-registered religious groups and must operate only in regions where their sponsoring organizations are registered; those found in violation face deportation and major fines.”
Lawyers are preparing to appeal the law to Russia’s Constitutional Court, Christianity Today reported.
The Euro-Asia Division, meanwhile, asked for prayers for Putin and Russia.
“We continue to pray for Russia’s president as a guarantor of the constitutional rights of Russian citizens,” it said. “We ask for continued prayer for the prevention of any violation of the rights and freedoms of believers in our country, and for the authorities who are responsible for complying with the law.”