Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders have raised concerns with senior Russian officials about new legislation that would severely restrict missionary activity in Russia by outlawing home churches and the free distribution of religious literature.
The legislation — part of a raft of antiterrorism bills — was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin into law on July 7, days after the lower and upper houses of parliament rapidly approved it in separate votes.
The Adventist Church had appealed to Putin not to sign the law, and Adventist believers across Russia observed a day of fasting and prayer last week.
Ganoune Diop, director of the public affairs and religious liberty department for the Adventist world church, discussed the legislation with leaders from the lower house of parliament, known as the State Duma, and the advisory Russian Public Chamber during a visit to Moscow this week.
“I raised the issue of this law and shared our concern as Seventh-day Adventists,” Diop told the Adventist Review on Friday.
“The official reason given is that this law is aimed at countering terrorism,” he said. “However, one can see how it can be turned into a tool for inquisition because the real issue is also connected to the interpretation of proselytism.”
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Church leaders earlier expressed concern that the wording of the legislation was vague and open to the interpretation of law enforcement agencies.
The law, which is to come into force on July 20, prohibits the exercise of missionary activity in residential areas, effectively banning religious gatherings such as home churches and prayer meetings among friends.
The law also requires believers who want to share their faith with others, including through the Internet and the distribution of literature, to first possess necessary documents from a religious association.
A Russian citizen convicted of violating the proposed legislation would face a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles (U.S.$75 to $765), while an organization would face a fine of 100,000 to 1 million rubles ($1,525 to $15,265). Citizens of other countries would be deported.
Oleg Goncharov, director of the public affairs and religious liberty department for the Euro-Asia Division, which is based in Moscow and whose territory covers most of the former Soviet Union, wrote an open letter to Putin not to approve the legislation last week, calling it “a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights, of the inalienable right given to every person by their Creator to express their religious convictions, and of rights enshrined in the Russian Constitution and international law.”
Goncharov and Diop, meanwhile, discussed the law with local Adventist religious liberty leaders during a previously scheduled three-day meeting in Moscow this week.
Diop said the work of each Adventist religious liberty leader at the meeting was to spread the gospel message to people of influence, following in the footsteps of biblical heroes such as Moses, Joseph, Daniel, and Esther, Goncharov’s office said in a statement.
“Bible prophecies tell us that religious freedom will be under serious threat at the end of time,” the statement said. “That's why today it is so important for Adventist administrators and leaders to build good relationships with the authorities, as well as societal and religious leaders. Most of the meeting was spent on this topic.”
On the last day of the July 4-6 meeting, the church leaders visited the State Duma and the Public Chamber. At the Public Chamber, they met Iosif Diskin, chair of a committee on the harmonization of interethnic and interfaith relations; and Vladimir Lagkuev, a chamber member from Dagestan. At the State Duma, the delegation was received by Yaroslav Nilov, chair of the parliamentary committee on religious organizations; and Stepan Medvedko, who oversees the committee’s day-to-day work.
“Deputy Nilov expressed his hope for cooperation between Adventists and State Duma deputies at the Duma’s next session,” Goncharov’s office said.
The State Duma adjourned for the summer after passing the restrictions on missionary activity.
Goncharov’s office voiced hope that the State Duma would amend the law in the fall and said the Adventist Church needed to work with other faiths to make this a reality.
“Perhaps this law will need to be amended by the State Duma at its next session,” it said. “For this to happen, it is necessary to involve representatives of various religious denominations.”