Since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed into law what some commentators referred to as an “anti-missionary bill” in July last year, individuals and groups have been targeted because of their religious affiliation in both Russia and the annexed Crimea.
After the annexation in March 2014, religious organisations in Crimea had to re-register under Russian law. Many of them were “forced to restructure themselves to meet Russian requirements”, according to regional news agency Forum 18. “This usually entailed cutting ties to their fellow-believers elsewhere in Ukraine.”
Under the law, known more commonly as the “Yarovaya” law (the name of one of its authors), which was adopted “to fight extremism”, Forum 18 says Christians and other religious groups in Crimea have experienced increased pressure through “raids, fines, religious literature seizures, government surveillance, expulsions of invited foreign religious leaders, unilateral cancellation of property rental contracts and obstructions to regaining places of worship confiscated in the Soviet period”.
“There is a good deal of opposition to this law – from inside the parliament, inside the Russian Orthodox Church, and from the president’s own human rights council, which opposed the law from the outset.”
In the past year, Forum 18 has recorded 13 cases in Crimea against individuals for “conducting missionary activity”.
“Eight of these – including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants and a Muslim – are known to have been fined about ten days’ average local wages each. Some were punished for participating in religious meetings of a community they belonged to,” Forum 18 writes.
Furthermore, there have been 14 cases involving seven religious communities and seven individuals charged for failing to indicate the official full name of a registered religious community. Eight of them were fined between 30,000 and 50,000 Russian Roubles (between $500 and $830), including two Jehovah’s Witnesses, one Hare Krishna devotee and one member each of the Pentecostal, Lutheran and Catholic Churches.
“Meanwhile, the Russian authorities in Crimea continue to hunt for religious literature which has been banned as ‘extremist’ in Russia. Individuals continue to be fined. Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses complain the authorities plant such literature during raids,” Forum 18 reports.
Earlier this month, World Watch Monitor reported that Russia has banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, calling them an “extremist” group. A spokeswoman for the US State Department, Heather Nauert, called the decision “the latest in a disturbing trend of persecution of religious minorities in Russia”.
Law professor Anatoly Pchelintcev warned that “if Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted, then that means later ‘on the block’ will come other religious movements – for example, Protestant churches”.
In April, Russia was added to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s list of “worst oppressors of religion”.
The “Yarovaya” law came into effect on 20 July last year, and was formally introduced as an “anti-terrorism” measure, allowing the government to monitor extremist groups. Critics, however, warned that the law could be interpreted more widely and curtail freedom of religion. World Watch Monitor reported at the time that it could have a major impact upon Russia’s Christians – “particularly missionaries, who will need a permit, and the so-called ‘house churches’, which will soon be deemed illegal, as religious activity will only be allowed to take place inside registered buildings, such as churches”.
One reported case since then involved an American missionary in Russia, Don Ossewaarde, who was fined $640 for holding a church service in his home. He took his case to Russia’s Supreme Court and then, in March, to the European Court for Human Rights.
In January a government Working Group said it was evaluating the law to discuss possible amendments to be brought before parliament and the president, but nothing has been heard since.
According to Elizabeth Kendal, a religious liberty analyst and advocate, “there is a good deal of opposition to this law – from inside the parliament, inside the Russian Orthodox Church, and from the president’s own human rights council, which opposed the law from the outset”. In September 2016, Putin admitted that the law may need to be “adjusted to not put people in a difficult position”.