MOSCOW (ABP) — Russian Baptist leaders have raised concerns about proposed revisions to the nation's religion law — changes they contend would greatly curtail religious freedom in Russia.
Yuri Sipko, president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists wrote Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Oct. 20 expressing "alarm and puzzlement" at the new and unexpected development in church-state relations.
Sipko said that restrictive changes to Russia's 1997 law "On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations," were not revealed in a roundtable of religious leaders he attended in September, while the legislation is reportedly supported by Russia's four designated "traditional" religions — Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
Vitaly Vlasenko, director of external church relations for the Baptist union, said he believed the proposed changes were directed toward Roman Catholics and Protestants, which do not have their own geographical territories in Russia.
The document, which first appeared in mid-October, for the first time defines "evangelical activities." It stipulates that only religious groups registered in Russia for at least 15 years can engage in missionary activity. Only leaders of evangelical organizations would have the right to preach. All others, including foreign visitors, would need written permission.
It would exclude from missionary work anyone ever convicted of inciting religious or ethnic hatred and other crimes of an extreme nature. Religious leaders said that would unduly burden pastors, who often do not know who has been convicted of what. It would also require religious bodies to close their doors to some members, effectively giving the government veto power over who may or may not join.
Other problematic changes include a requirement that minors not be present for religious activities without the express permission of their parents or guardians. Baptist leaders said requiring pastors to turn away young people would force them to violate Jesus' commandment to "let the little children come to me and do not hinder them" recorded in the Gospels.
They also called it absurd that young people would be barred from attending church but not movie theaters, stadiums or discos. "Is a place of worship more dangerous than a secular location?" Sipko's letter asked. "This legislation wants to define religious organizations as harmful, and that is clear discrimination."
Sipko said the legislation would lead to "further moral decline" in Russian society and lead to "greater alienation between the privileged and non-privileged faiths."
He said Russian Baptist leaders were also concerned about ambiguity in the law. For example, it prohibits religious organizations from "offering material or social benefits" to potential new recruits and bans the use of "psychological pressure or manipulation of consciences."
Sipko said promising an alcoholic sobriety through treatment and church attendance might be interpreted as a "social benefit" and that a sermon on the last judgment and the need to repent could be deemed "psychological pressure."
Vlasenko said the Russian Baptist group "is not against regulation of missionary activities per se, but we are certainly against their prohibition." He said the union was asking its 1,750 congregations and groups to "unite for prayer and fasting" about the proposal and invited foreign churches to participate as well.
Vlasenko said he is also interested in hearing foreign legal expertise and from other churches that have had similar experiences in their relations with their governments.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.