Christians in Russia have called for a day of prayer and fasting tomorrow (Wednesday 29 June) as the country looks set to introduce draconian new restrictions on freedom of religion similar to those that existed in the Communist era.
Last Friday two members of the Russian Duma (parliament) introduced a series of amendments to anti-terrorist legislation that would require individuals to gain prior state authorisation before even discussing their faith with someone else. The Duma adopted the amendments and tomorrow the bill will be discussed by the Council of the Russian Federation and then be sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The new law will require any sharing of the Christian faith – even a casual conversation – to have prior authorisation from the state. This includes something as basic as an emailed invitation for a friend to attend church. Even in a private home, worship and prayer will only be allowed if there are no unbelievers present. Churches will also be held accountable for the activities of their members. So if, for example, a church member mentions their faith in conversation with a work colleague, not only the church member but also the church itself could be punished, with individuals facing fines of up to 50,000 roubles (£580; USD770; €700). There are also restrictions on the extent to which churches can have contact with foreigners; for example, any non-Russian citizen attending a church service would be required to have a work visa or face a fine and expulsion from Russia.
The bill appears to be using the excuse of anti-terrorist legislation to clamp down on any churches other than the Russian Orthodox, support for which is closely tied to Russian nationalism. President Putin has in recent years increasingly emphasised his own membership of the Russian Orthodox Church as a means of bolstering popular support for himself. However, even some senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church have voiced concerns about the bill.
If passed, the extent that this law is implemented will depend on local authorities. However, the bill is vaguely worded and, with a heavily politicised judiciary, could lead to a situation similar to that faced by Christians in the Communist era.
Barnabas Fund colleagues in Russia have expressed serious concerns about the proposed measures. The Advisory Council of Heads of Protestant Churches of Russia has urgently appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop the legislation. Meanwhile in scenes reminiscent of the book of Esther (4:1-17) leaders of Russia’s Baptist Union urged all Christians to pray and fast tomorrow for God’s protection on Christians in Russia.