Law enforcement agencies are increasing pressure on Protestants in Nizhny Novgorod Region. They are using both the so-called “anti-missionary” amendment and immigration law to punish churches and their members for such activities as inviting students to parties and posting videos of worship on social media. Judges have fined and ordered the deportation from Russia of two African students at Nizhny Novgorod’s medical academy for appearing in or reposting videos on the VKontakte social network.
The two students’ Pentecostal church, Jesus Embassy, has received multiple fines under Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 3 (“Implementation of activities by a religious organisation without indicating its official full name, including the issuing or distribution, within the framework of missionary activity, of literature and printed, audio, and video material without a label bearing this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately false label”) and Part 4 (“Russians conducting missionary activity”).
The FSB security service initiated the prosecutions of both Jesus Embassy Church members and the latest prosecution of the Church itself (see below).
The two deported students have been permitted to stay in the country to complete their final exams, but must leave by 30 June. “After spending 6 years in Russia, they would have become a connecting thread between our countries,” Pentecostal Bishop Konstantin Bendas, commented in “Novaya Gazeta” newspaper on 17 May. “Now this thread is broken.”
“The charges of illegal missionary activity are completely unlawful,” Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin insisted to Forum 18. “I would like to hope that the cases were initiated by the stupidity of the siloviki, otherwise this greatly undermines the authority of Russia in the international arena.”
Many other Nizhny Novgorod prosecutions
Other Protestant churches in the Region have also faced prosecution many times since the adoption of the “anti-missionary” law in July 2016, court records show. Indeed, World Cup host city Nizhny Novgorod and its Region have one of the highest levels of prosecution under Administrative Code Article 5.26 (primarily under Part 3) in the whole of Russia, and several cases appear to rest on flimsy or fabricated evidence (see below).
Nizhny Novgorod is an “advanced region” for prosecutions under the “anti-missionary” amendment, Pentecostal Union lawyer Ozolin told Forum 18 from Moscow on 19 May. Seventh-day Adventist lawyer Vasily Nichik agreed, commenting to Forum 18 on 19 June that Nizhny Novgorod is “among the foremost in terms of persecution in the field of religious freedoms”. It is difficult to explain why, he added. “In these matters, very often everything depends on the personalities within the system”.
In the first year of the “anti-missionary” law (July 2016 to July 2017), cases under Administrative Code Article 5.26, Parts 3, 4, and 5 (“Foreigners conducting missionary activity”) reached court in 50 regions of the country. Nizhny Novgorod saw the highest number of separate investigations (eight) and the fourth highest number of individual prosecutions (eleven).
According to available court records, Nizhny Novgorod has experienced a particularly high level of prosecution under Article 5.26, Part 3, more than twice that of the next region.
Constitutional Court definition – any impact?
In general, the Religion Law’s vague definition of “missionary activity” (and lack of clarity over what constitutes “membership of” or “participation in” a religious association) has meant that law enforcement can understand virtually anything as “missionary activity”.
In March 2018, however, Russia’s Constitutional Court issued its own interpretation, which lawyers hoped would clarify the key concepts employed in cases under Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5.
According to the Constitutional Court, “A defining feature [sistemoobrazuyushchy priznak] of missionary activity is the dissemination by citizens and their associations of information about a specific religious belief among persons who, not being its followers, are involved in their number, including as participants in specific religious associations”. Therefore, the distribution of information, for example, about services, ceremonies, or events “falls under the definition of missionary activity as such, only if it contains the said defining feature” (see F18News 16 May 2018 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2377).
Most of the “anti-missionary” prosecutions in the current law enforcement campaign in Nizhny Novgorod took place before the Constitutional Court issued its interpretation. Two, however, came to trial afterwards, but the Constitutional Court’s clarification of the legal norms appears to have had no effect on the outcome.
It should also be noted that the Constitutional Court’s definition of missionary activity has no bearing on prosecutions under Article 5.26, Part 3 (“Implementation of activities by a religious organisation without indicating its official full name, including the issuing or distribution, within the framework of missionary activity, of literature and printed, audio, and video material without a label bearing this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately false label”).
Who is being targeted and where is this coming from?
The Jesus Embassy Pentecostal Church, which has several communities in the Region, has borne the brunt of law enforcement attention, but other Protestant communities have also been affected. Jesus Embassy communities, which are led and primarily made up of Russians, are part of the Russian Pentecostal Union, which, according to Bishop Konstantin Bendas, has an agreement with several African embassies in Russia to work with students from their countries.
“The FSB is interested in Jesus Embassy itself and Protestants in general,” lawyer Aleksey Vetoshkin, who has been involved in several recent cases, told Forum 18 from Nizhny Novgorod on 17 May. “After this pressure, the number of African parishioners has fallen from 150 to 20”.
Nizhny Novgorod so far appears to be a particular hotspot for prosecutions related to “missionary activity”. While the focus on Protestant communities is not anomalous (they make up the clear majority of prosecutions across the country), the intensity of law enforcement activity in Nizhny Novgorod, particularly that aimed at foreign students, is unusual.
Foreigners elsewhere are sometimes fined or deported under immigration law for engaging in religious activity when this is not covered by their visas, but they are usually clergy or lay missionaries on brief visits to Russia. It is rare for students who have been at Russian universities for several years to be ordered to leave.
There does not appear to be a nationwide law enforcement campaign against African Protestants in Russia. Forum 18 is aware of only four other Africans who have been prosecuted under Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 5 since July 2016 (three students, one pastor – all affiliated with various Protestant churches), in four different regions. Of these cases, one was returned to police for technical reasons and not resubmitted – the other three defendants were fined and one was ordered deported, but the deportation order was rescinded on appeal (see F18News 9 August 2017 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2306).
The law enforcement campaign in Nizhny Novgorod Region appears to be driven by the FSB security service. According to FSB documents seen by Forum 18 or cited in the Russian media, the FSB alerted the police immigration control department and local Justice Ministry branch to various alleged violations. Those agencies then initiated prosecutions. Court verdicts usually refer to (but do not quote) FSB information as evidence of a defendant’s guilt.
Forum 18 wrote to the Nizhny Novgorod FSB on 21 June, asking why it is targeting Protestants and in what way they can be considered a security risk, but had received no reply by the end of the working day on 25 June.
“I understand that behind the whole persecution of Protestants is someone from the leadership of law enforcement agencies. Who? It is difficult to answer this question unambiguously,” lawyer Vasily Nichik remarked to Forum 18 on 19 June. “If a highly intolerant person enters the power structure, then he sees enemies in everyone and begins to construct schemes to restrict freedoms and persecute [people] for dissent. Such a type has probably ended up in the leadership of law enforcement agencies in the Nizhny Novgorod Region.”
Kudzai Nyamarebvu prosecuted
Zimbabwean medical student Kudzai Nyamarebvu has faced prosecution three times in six months under both immigration and “anti-missionary” legislation for an increasingly bizarre series of alleged offences involving videos on social media. She has been ordered to leave Russia by 30 June. The church she attends in Nizhny Novgorod, “Jesus Embassy”, and the regional Pentecostal association to which it belongs, have also received fines.
– Prosecution No. 1 – Article 18.8, Part 2
Nizhny Novgorod’s Sormovo District Court found Nyamarebvu guilty on 25 January 2018 of an offence under Administrative Code Article 18.8, Part 2 (“Violation by a foreign citizen or stateless person of the rules of entry into the Russian Federation or the regime of residence in the Russian Federation, expressed in the inconsistency of the declared goal of entry with the activity or occupation actually carried out during his/her stay”). She had appeared in a video her Church had posted on its VKontakte page,
Judge Vasily Korytov fined Nyamarebvu 5,000 Roubles (five days’ average local wages) and ordered her to be deported (“monitored independent departure”, meaning that she would not be detained in the interim). At the time, she was half way through her sixth and final year at the Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy (since renamed Privolzhsky Medical Research University), and deportation would have meant that she would have been unable to sit her final exams and receive her degree.
Although the case against Nyamarebvu was lodged by the police immigration control department, it was based on information from the FSB, according to the court verdict seen by Forum 18.
The video which triggered the prosecution had been posted in November 2016, and showed Nyamarebvu inviting fellow African students to a “welcome party” at the church. The Nizhny Novgorod police immigration control department and Judge Korytov decided that this constituted “missionary activity” on behalf of Jesus Embassy, thus violating the terms of Nyamarebvu’s visa, which granted her entry to Russia for the purpose of education only.
As church lawyer Vladimir Malinin argued, the video had no religious content and the planned party was not a religious event. Bishop Bendas also points out in his 17 May article in “Novaya Gazeta” that most Africans who come to study in Russia are Protestants anyway. Nyamarebvu was also speaking English, Pentecostal Union lawyer Ozolin noted to Forum 18. It is therefore unclear how this could be deemed “missionary activity”.
Under the Russian Constitution and international law, foreign citizens also have equal rights with Russian citizens to freedom of religion and belief.
Nyamrebvu’s appeal on 7 February at Nizhny Novgorod Regional Court was unsuccessful, but Judge Vyacheslav Kudrya set her date of departure from Russia as 30 June 2018, to allow her to complete her medical studies.
– Prosecution No. 2 – Article 5.26, Part 5
Police later charged Nyamarebvu under Article 5.26, Part 5 (“Foreigners conducting missionary activity”) for reposting, on her own VKontakte page, a video which showed another African student talking about how she believed God had helped her recover from illness. Nyamarebvu had deleted this video in late January, but police nevertheless lodged a case against her in April at Nizhny Novgorod’s Prioksky District Court.
Judge Olga Vorotnikova sent the case back on 23 April because officers had not specified in their report the location of the alleged offence, according to the written verdict, seen by Forum 18. On 4 May, the police sent Nyamarebvu a letter telling her that the case had been dropped because the time limit for prosecution had passed.
– Prosecution No. 3 – Article 5.26, Part 5
On 8 June, the police summoned Nyamarebvu and informed her that she was being charged again under Article 5.26, Part 5 because of an interview she had given about her earlier prosecutions, which had been published on the Pentecostal Union’s website.
Officers interpreted this interview as “unlawful missionary activity”. Judge Mariya Astafyeva of Prioksky District Court fined Nyamarebvu 30,000 Roubles (one month’s average local wages) on 9 June. Nyamarebvu was due to sit her final exam the next day.
Jesus Embassy pastor Pavel Ryndich attended the court hearing. “The accusation disintegrated like a sandcastle under the simplest questioning,” he wrote on his Facebook page on 10 June.
Nevertheless, the judge decided that Nyamarebvu was guilty of “hidden missionary activity, not expressed in either words or gestures”.
Prosecutions of Jesus Embassy
– For party invitation
Before Nyamarebvu herself became subject to law enforcement attention, her church – Jesus Embassy – had already been fined three times for the single video in which she had appeared.
Both the local religious organisation – Jesus Embassy Bible Centre, Nizhny Novgorod – and the centralised religious organisation – Jesus Embassy Union of Evangelical Churches in Nizhny Novgorod – were prosecuted under Article 5.26, Part 3 (“Implementation of activities by a religious organisation without indicating its official full name, including the issuing or distribution, within the framework of missionary activity, of literature and printed, audio, and video material without a label bearing this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately false label”).
Judge Yelena Kutuzova of Moscow District Magistrate’s Court No. 6 found both guilty in separate hearings (on 8 June and 6 June 2017 respectively) and fined them 30,000 Roubles (one month’s average local wages) each for distributing video material on VKontake and YouTube which did not bear the organisations’ full official names.
The local church made an unsuccessful appeal on 11 July 2017 at Moscow District Court, and an unsuccessful supervisory appeal on 28 September 2017 at Nizhny Novgorod Regional Court. The centralised church also unsuccessfully challenged its conviction at Moscow District Court on 20 July 2017, but lodged no supervisory appeal.
The centralised Jesus Embassy organisation was also prosecuted under Article 5.26, Part 4 for the same video – for allowing Nyamarebvu to perform the alleged “missionary activity” without the necessary documentation authorising her to do so.
Judge Kutuzova fined the organisation 50,000 Roubles on 9 June 2017. Although the judge noted that the centralised organisation was the entity obliged to fulfil the requirements of the law and thus the one to bear responsibility for the alleged offence, this appears to have had no bearing on the prosecution of the local church.
The centralised organisation appealed unsuccessfully against its Part 4 conviction on 11 July 2017 at Moscow District Court. An unsuccessful supervisory appeal took place on 28 September 2017 at Nizhny Novgorod Regional Court.
– For video about “Encounter” event
Another video from 2016 served as grounds for prosecuting the centralised Jesus Embassy organisation again under both Article 5.26, Part 3 (“Implementation of activities by a religious organisation without indicating its official full name, including the issuing or distribution, within the framework of missionary activity, of literature and printed, audio, and video material without a label bearing this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately false label”) and Article 5.26, Part 4 (“Russians conducting missionary activity”).
This video, also posted on the church’s social media pages, showed four other students (from Zambia, Namibia, Malawi, and Côte d’Ivoire) talking (in English, French, and Portuguese) about their experiences at “encounter” events at the church – “This is a time when we discuss such topics as love, faith, and dreams, based on the Bible”, church press secretary Yuliya Yermoshina told Dozhd TV on 27 April.
On 28 April 2018, Judge Yelena Kutuzova of Nizhny Novgorod’s Moscow District Magistrate’s Court No. 6 again found Jesus Embassy guilty both of permitting the students to perform “missionary activity” without the necessary documentation (Part 4) and of failing to display its full official name in the video (Part 3). She issued fines of 30,000 Roubles (one month’s average local wages) under Part 3 and 100,000 Roubles under Part 4. Moscow District Court rejected both appeals on 8 June 2018.
One of the people in the video, medical student Chileshe Maurin, had already graduated and returned to Zambia in 2017, before the church was charged. The others – Debora Mangenge and Mzengereza Tingawena from the (then) Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy, and Kpata Evilafo Adel Olivia Romuald from Nizhny Novgorod State Pedagogical University – do not appear to have been charged either under immigration law or the “anti-missionary” amendment.
Given the length of time which elapsed between the multiple prosecutions of Jesus Embassy for the “welcome party” video and the prosecution of Kudzai Nyamarebvu, however, the three remaining Africans might still face charges.
The Justice Ministry of Nizhny Novgorod Region lodged the case at the Magistrate’s Court, but on the basis of information from the FSB, which wrote to the Justice Ministry on 20 February 2018, alerting it to the video. The FSB document states that the four Africans had entered the country on student visas but had carried out “missionary activity on behalf of a religious organisation” without written authorisation, according to the Dozhd TV report of 27 April.
Nosise Vusiwe Shiba prosecuted
The FSB security service also initiated at least one prosecution of another member of Jesus Embassy, Nosise Vusiwe Shiba from Swaziland. She too has been ordered to leave Russia.
Shiba, also in her final year of medical school, first received a fine of 5,000 Roubles (five days’ average local wages) under Administrative Code Article 18.8, Part 2 on 28 February 2018 for participating in a “missionary conference” (“To the ends of the earth”) held by the Russian Pentecostal Union in Penza in May 2017. On 16 May 2018, she appeared in court for a second time, charged under Article 18.8, Part 4 (“An offence under Parts 1 or 2 repeated within one year”) with having sung at another “missionary conference” (“Save one more!”) in Nizhny Novgorod.
Judge Vasily Korytov of Nizhny Novgorod’s Sormovo District Court interpreted both acts as performing “missionary activity” while on an educational visa, as “by means of participating in a public event with the performance of religious songs, she disseminated information about her beliefs to an unlimited number of people”. For the second alleged offence, Shiba was fined 7,000 Roubles and ordered deported, but permitted to remain until 30 June to complete her degree.
The FSB security service noted in a letter to the police immigration control department on 18 April 2018 that Shiba appears singing in two videos which Jesus Embassy uploaded to YouTube in April and June 2017. The first video showed an Easter service; the second, the “Save one more!” conference. The FSB found the videos in October 2017.
According to the FSB letter, seen by Forum 18, these videos indicate that Shiba “participates in the activity of the so-called “worship group” [musicians] of [the centralised regional Jesus Embassy Church] and actively participates in preaching by P. Ryndich, pastor of this organisation”. Such “unlawful religious activity” constitutes “a violation .. of the rules of residence on the territory of the Russian Federation, in the form of non-conformity with the declared purpose of entry”.
“[Shiba] will finish her studies, a person’s life has not been broken”, her lawyer Aleksey Vetoshkin wrote on Facebook on 19 May. “However, the court has set a dangerous precedent – singing beautifully on the stage of a Protestant church is missionary activity. In my opinion, this is nonsense, but in the opinion of the court, this act creates public danger”.
Neither Shiba nor Jesus Embassy (local or centralised bodies) yet appears to have been charged under Administrative Code Article 5.26 in relation to these alleged offences.
Other Nizhny Novgorod churches targeted?
Law enforcement agencies in Nizhny Novgorod Region appear to be targeting Protestants using the “anti-missionary” amendment, rather than foreigners in particular. Foreign members of only the Jesus Embassy church appear to have been prosecuted so far, under either Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 5 or immigration law.
Out of a total of eighteen prosecutions under Article 5.26, Part 3 in Nizhny Novgorod region (all dating from 2017 and 2018), sixteen were of Protestant communities – 6 Pentecostal, 5 Seventh-day Adventist, 3 independent Protestant, and 2 Baptist Union. There was also one case against a Hare Krishna community and one against Jehovah’s Witnesses (from before their nationwide ban).
Seventh-day Adventists in Nizhny Novgorod region have mainly been prosecuted under Article 5.26, Parts 3 and 4, lawyer Vasily Nichik told Forum 18 on 19 June. Their foreign members have kept a low profile and have experienced no problems. Adventist communities have, however, been subject to significant law enforcement attention, much of it, they claim, on spurious grounds.
Nichik described one “shameful case”, in which an unknown person removed a church sign showing the religious organisation’s full official name and replaced it with one bearing an incomplete name. This was not simple vandalism: “It’s very interesting that whoever did this knew the legal consequences of incorrect signage very well,” Nichik observed to Forum 18. “They didn’t just rip off the sign and throw it away, but made another and hung it in place of the first. Another interesting coincidence is that immediately after this, in the morning, a group of police officers arrived.”
Nichik added: “We can’t say who did this, but the available facts force one to draw conclusions about who is behind it. As a result, a small community of mostly pensioners was fined 30,000 Roubles [one month’s average local wages] under Article 5.26 Part 3.”
In his 17 May “Novaya Gazeta” article of, Pentecostal Bishop Bendas also notes the law enforcement focus on Seventh-day Adventists as well as his own church, outlining how police and FSB security service officers interrupted services in the towns of Shakhunya and Zavolzhye in Nizhny Novgorod Region.
“This means that [law enforcement officers] arrive during a service and begin interrogating parishioners and clergy, meaning that worship cannot proceed further,” lawyer Nichik explained to Forum 18 on 21 June. “Usually, they come with the service side-arms which they always carry, not with automatic weapons.”
In Shakhunya, the church was fined despite the fact that a sign with its full name was attached to the front door, which officers mysteriously “did not see at point blank range”. In Zavolzhye, the community was explicitly accused of not having a sign on its fence (for which there is no legal requirement). In this instance, the judge closed the case “in the absence of an administrative offence”. (END)
By Victoria Arnold, Forum 18
President Putin has signed amendments imposing harsh restrictions on sharing beliefs, including where and who may share them, and increased “extremism” punishments, introduced with alleged “anti-terrorism” changes. There are widespread Russian protests against the suddenly-introduced changes, and may be a Constitutional Court challenge.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has signed into law legislation on so-called “missionary activity”, further restricting the public expression of freedom of religion and belief, including in the media and online, Forum 18 notes. The amendment – which has been rapidly introduced – caused widespread protests, but was signed on 6 July and the signing was made public at Moscow lunchtime on 7 July. It was published on the presidential website that day and comes into force on 20 July.
Lawyers working to protect the right to freedom of religion and belief are already preparing for an appeal to the Constitutional Court. At the same time, they are preparing advice to individuals and religious communities on how to abide by the terms of the law. One Protestant leader, though, has warned that some of the restrictions ‘a good Christian cannot fulfil’ (see below).
Against international human rights obligations, the amendments to the Religion Law restrict those who can share beliefs to people with permission from members of state-registered religious groups and organisations. This excludes people from groups which have chosen to operate without state permission, such as certain Baptist congregations. The amendments also bar even informal sharing of beliefs, for example responding to questions or comments, by individuals acting on their own behalf (see below).
The amendments also restrict the beliefs that can be shared, specifies a restricted list of places where beliefs may be shared, and explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings, or on another association’s property without permission. An allegedly “anti-terrorist” part of the amendments bars the conversion of residential property to religious use (see below).
There are now heavy financial penalties of up to 50,000 Roubles for individuals and up to 1 million Roubles for organisations who violate the amendments. A fine of 50,000 Roubles (about 6,500 Norwegian Kroner, 700 Euros, or 780 US Dollars) represents about six weeks’ average wages for those in work. Maximum fines for organisations would be up to 20 times as much.
Another part of the package of laws sharply increases Criminal Code Article 282.2 punishments for those convicted of allegedly “extremist” activity. These were last increased in February 2014 (see below).
Putin signs despite protests
Parliament’s upper chamber approved the bill on 29 June 2016 and sent it to President Putin to sign into law. He signed despite widespread protests, including many pointing out that the amendments violate the Constitution and international human rights obligations.
Mikhail Fedotov, Chair of the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, protested directly to Putin on 1 July, arguing that Human Rights Council recommendations on other parts of the package had not been taken into consideration, and that the amendments “create unjustified and excessive restrictions on the freedom of conscience of believers of all religions, and encroach upon the fundamental constitutional principle of non-interference by the state in the internal arrangements of religious associations” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Until now the current Religion Law (originally passed in 1997) contained no definition of or explicit limitations on sharing beliefs publicly, though some regions did impose local laws restricting sharing beliefs. It is likely that these will either have to be withdrawn or adapted to bring them into line with new amendments (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Also affecting the sharing of religious ideas, a widely-opposed and vaguely-worded law criminalising “offending religious feelings” (not blasphemy as often described) came into force on 1 July 2012. But few if any prosecutions followed, though critics noted that the amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Offences were so poorly defined that they could be used by anyone to prosecute actions they simply dislike (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
The current amendment restricting sharing beliefs was proposed between 13 and 20 June 2016 by Duma Deputy Igor Zotov, who has not answered Forum 18’s questions on why he introduced the amendment. Similar earlier 2016 bills apparently did not have government support. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko stated on 5 February and 18 May that sufficient regulation of the dissemination of beliefs was already in place and that the proposed legislation would violate citizens’ constitutional right to freedom to disseminate their beliefs. For unexplained reasons the government changed its view (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
The current amendment restricting sharing beliefs introduces an entire new section to the Religion Law, and was added to United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor Ozerov’s controversial package of proposed laws on public security and anti-terrorism measures in mid-June. “An anti-terrorism package is almost certainly one that will pass,” SOVA Center for Information and Analysis Director Aleksandr Verkhovsky commented to Forum 18 from Moscow on 22 June. So adding the sharing belief restrictions to such a package was “a clever move” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
In line with international human rights obligations?
Forum 18 also contacted the Duma’s Legal and Linguistic Analysis Department on 23 June to ask:
– whether the Department thinks the proposed amendment is in line with Russia’s Constitution and international human rights obligations, such as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) human dimension commitments;
– and why the amendment was included in a law to counter terrorism and ensure public safety when “national security” is not a permissible reason in international human rights law to restrict freedom of religion and belief.
However, on hearing Forum 18 introduce itself, Department Head Andrei Dubrovsky immediately put the phone down (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
The content of the amendments, such as the ban on sharing beliefs in residential premises, directly contravenes Russia’s international human rights obligations (see the outline of these in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)/Council of Europe Venice Commission Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief http://www.osce.org/odihr/13993). Russia is a participating State in the OSCE and a member of the Venice Commission.
“A black day on the calendar”
President Putin’s signing of the amendments into law brought widespread condemnation in Russia. “Today is indeed a black day on the calendar,” lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice wrote on his Facebook page on 7 July. “Hope was that Vladimir Putin would not in the end sign this law. A law which openly contradicts the gospel command ‘go and make disciples’ and, in addition, violates the constitutional rights of citizens.” He complained that the amendments been drafted by “people who were absolutely not professionals and who didn’t understand religious practice”.
Ryakhovsky noted that now the law has been adopted and until any amendments can be made or any appeal lodged to the Constitutional Court, “we have to live by it”. “Let’s work out how to get round it, and then we’ll seek to get it amended. Don’t succumb to panic when they threaten you with all kinds of horror stories.” He said that he and his colleagues at the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice in Moscow will hold a seminar on 19 July – to be streamed online – giving advice on the new Law.
Deputy Bishop Konstantin Bendas of the Pentecostal Union said he hoped that deputies in the Duma to be elected in September will wish to amend what has been adopted. He highlighted what he sees as the need to change the provisions on “missionary activity” and the use of homes for meetings for worship.
“The state’s refusal over many years to assign land to Protestant communities to build churches has forced us to acquire or build buildings designated as residential,” Bendas complained to REF news agency on 7 July, “and hold our services and charitable ministries in them.” The acquisition and retention of property for meetings for worship and similar purposes has long been a problem for many belief communities of all faiths (see eg. F18News 16 December 2014 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2024).
Bendas stressed that Protestants regard home churches as an integral part of their activity. “The new Law takes no account of this practice.”
Deputy Bishop Bendas noted harassment of a community in a town near Moscow before the Law was adopted. “The local police officer came to a home where a group of Pentecostals meet each Sunday,” he noted. “With a contented expression he told them: ‘Now they’re adopting the Law I’ll drive you all out of here.’ I reckon we should now fear such ‘zealous enforcement’.”
Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses – who often do not have their own permanent buildings – are the man belief communities fined or threatened with fines for organising or conducting meetings for worship which have not been specifically approved by the local authorities (see eg. F18News 2 March 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2044).
Bendas said the Pentecostal Union is preparing instructions and recommendations for its congregations on the provisions of the new Law. “I reckon there will also be a section ‘demands of the Law which a good Christian cannot fulfil’,” he added.
Because of the three-day Uraza Bayram (Id al-fitr) festival that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – observed this year in Russia from the evening of 5 July – Forum 18 was unable to gain immediate comment on the new Law from a number of Muslim organisations.
“We are distressed by the law and see it as repressive for believers in our country, because the law contradicts the Bible”, a spokeswoman for the Council of Churches – Baptists told Forum 18 from Moscow on 8 July. She added that it is difficult to say precisely how Baptists’ activities will be affected, but “we must assume there will be repression and persecution”. When Forum 18 asked about the impact on activities in residential premises, she replied that Baptists would continue to gather, but that when the Law is put into practice, “then we will have a problem”.
Constitutional Court appeal?
It is too early to appeal to the Constitutional Court, Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18 on 8 July, “as the law is not yet in force and has not yet violated anyone’s rights”.
“It is important to understand where law enforcement practice will go. If it leans towards limiting the rights of individual citizens to disseminate their religious beliefs, then an appeal to the Constitutional Court is inevitable. The main question is: will representatives of religious communities be unable to preach?”
Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center pointed out to Forum 18 on 8 July that at the moment, before the law comes into force, there is practically nothing which can be done to challenge it, “unless one-third of Duma deputies in the new session [in September] appeal to the Constitutional Court, but that will be impossible”. He added, “It is very difficult to predict the dynamics of [the Law’s] application. If and when it is seriously applied, then there will be consequences”.
In addition to Duma deputies and officials, Article 96 of the Law on the Constitutional Court allows “individual and collective complaints against the violation of the constitutional rights and freedoms” from individuals”.
Lutheran Bishop Konstantin Andreyev, who is also a lawyer at the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, said on 7 July that his telephone had been “white with heat” with a huge number of calls about the new Law. He wrote on his Facebook page that it was “foreseeable” that the new Law would be adopted, adding that he understood people’s “anger, disappointment and frustration”.
“We are beginning to prepare for the Constitutional Court,” Andreyev noted, “and, at the same time, to draw up procedures and recommendations for religious organisations as to how to live under the new Law.”
The amendments “violate my rights as a citizen of Russia”
Even before President Putin signed the amendments into law, they provoked widespread protests, from belief communities and human rights defenders. “The entry into force of this law would mean that the Russian political system has shifted ever further towards a totalitarian regime,” Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18 on 24 June (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
As well as those who have publicly protested, Forum 18 is aware of other belief communities seriously alarmed by the amendment. However, they do not wish to make any public comment as they fear the possible consequences of publicising their opposition (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Some belief communities – such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees, some Muslims, Baptists and various other Protestants – may be particularly vulnerable to prosecution. This is because public sharing of their beliefs is either a specific religious obligation, or seen as a key part of their faith (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Many belief communities of all faiths and human rights defenders made similar criticisms to those of Mukaddas Bibarsov, Co-chair of the Council of Muftis and head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Volga Region “Spreading faith is a statutory objective of almost every religious association, organisations and groups alike,” he noted, “as well as a way to practice their religion for believers, who until recently had a constitutional right to share their creed with others, be publicly baptised, read prayers, offer literature, and just talk heart to heart.” He added that “it remains unclear what the legislators want to achieve” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
The Baptist Council of Churches published an open letter of protest to President Putin, reminding him that the government itself refused to support earlier attempts to restrict sharing beliefs. It also complained that legislators responsible for the bill did not seek the views of competent experts or the opinions of believers, “who are the most affected by the new amendments”, and that the bill violates Russian citizens’ constitutional right “freely to choose, hold, and disseminate religious and other beliefs” (Article 28) to all other citizens, regardless of whether or not they belong to the same or any religious association” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Igor Yanshin, a lawyer and member of a Pentecostal church in Siberia, set up a change.org petition in an attempt to persuade the President to halt the bill. After 25,000 people had signed it in the first three days, he sent it to Putin on 29 June via the Kremlin website. The petition remains active and reached 37,000 signatures by the evening of 4 July in Moscow. “I decided to collect signatures, aware that the proposed amendments violate my rights as a citizen of Russia,” Yanshin told Forum 18 on 30 June (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Nearly 40,000 people had signed Yanshin’s petition as of lunchtime in Moscow on 8 July. Another change.org petition calling on the amendments to be revoked – focusing on surveillance over electronic communications – had gathered nearly 370,000 signatures by the same time.
Yanshin also noted that the amendments exert a chilling effect on even the most informal manifestation of freedom of religion and belief. As he noted in his petition: “Travelling by train and want to tell a neighbour about God? Forget it! After all, you do not have/have forgotten/have not received the relevant documents, and you could spend the rest of the trip in the nearest police station. Want to repost a beautiful picture with a quote from a preacher on VKontakte? Think twice! Double-check the validity of the authorising document! Sent a message to a friend with an invitation to a service? Wait for the police to visit!” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
What is sharing beliefs – and what beliefs?
The new Chapter 24 of the Religion Law states: “For the purposes of this federal law, missionary activity is recognised as the activity of a religious association, aimed at disseminating information about its beliefs among people who are not participants (members, followers) in that religious association, with the purpose of involving these people as participants (members, followers). It is carried out directly by religious associations or by citizens and/or legal entities authorised by them, publicly, with the help of the media, the internet or other lawful means.”
Lawyer Yanshin argues in his change.org petition that this definition means that “now any conversation about God with a non-believer is missionary activity and subject to regulation”.
The definition appears to exclude the possibility of punishment for promoting atheist views, since, as Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center pointed out to Forum 18 on 4 July, atheists have no “religious association” in which to involve other people (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
However, the expression of atheist views and criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church has led to prosecution under existing articles of both the Criminal and Administrative Codes, Forum 18 notes. An atheist blogger is currently on trial in Stavropol for making disparaging comments about Christianity (see F18News 29 June 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2193). Also, a video associated with the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church was declared “extremist” in 2014 for its critical view of the Moscow Patriarchate (see F18News 3 December 2014 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2020).
Limited places beliefs can be shared in
The amendment also specifies that sharing beliefs may be carried out “without hindrance” only in the following places:
– in religious premises, buildings and structures, as well as on land on which such buildings and structures are located;
– in buildings and structures belonging to religious organisations or provided to them in order to carry out their statutory activities, as well as on land on which such buildings and structures are located;
– in premises belonging to religious organisations or provided to them in order to carry out their statutory activities, as well as on land on which the buildings containing the relevant premises are located, by agreement with the owners of such buildings;
– in premises, buildings, and structures and on land owned by or provided to institutions established by religious organisations;
– on land owned by or provided to religious organisations;
– in places of pilgrimage;
– cemeteries and crematoria;
– in the premises of educational institutions historically used for religious ceremonies.
Specific bans on sharing beliefs in some places
As well as limiting the places where sharing beliefs can happen, the amendment also explicitly bans sharing beliefs in some places.
– Residential buildings
Sharing beliefs is not permitted in residential buildings, “except as provided for by Article 16, Part 2 of [the Religion Law]”. Article 16, Part 2, states that worship services and other religious rites and ceremonies may be freely held in residential premises, as well as in premises owned or rented by religious organisations. It is therefore unclear what this part of the amendment will mean in practice.
“I fear even the authors of the law don’t understand this,” Yanshin remarked to Forum 18 from Nizhnevartovsk on 1 July. Sharing beliefs door-to-door would appear to be banned by the amendment, but it is unclear how far other forms of sharing beliefs in residential buildings will be affected.
Bishop Bendas of the Union of Evangelical Christians suggested on 24 June that residential premises owned or rented by a religious organisation would be exempted. But he pointed out that “We follow the common biblical practice of house churches, in which parishioners not only come to church on Sundays, but gather in each other’s flats or houses during the week, when small services may be held, to which may be invited, among others, even people who are not members of the church. By my reckoning, in Moscow alone more than a thousand of these house churches gather every week.”
As Yanshin indicated to Forum 18, while religious services are legally permitted in residential buildings, the presence of non-believers or members of other faiths may lead such events to be considered “missionary activity” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
– “Anti-terrorism” ban on religious buildings
A corresponding amendment to the federal Housing Code in the same “anti-terrorism” package prevents the conversion of residential premises to non-residential use for the purposes of religious activity (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195). However, in international human rights law “national security” or related grounds such as terrorism are not permissible grounds to restrict freedom of religion and belief (see the OSCE/Venice Commission Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief http://www.osce.org/odihr/13993).
– Not on another association’s property
Sharing beliefs is also not permitted on the property of another religious association without written permission.
What beliefs can be shared?
The amendment also contains a list of aims which sharing beliefs is not permitted to pursue. Some are general, such as “the violation of public safety and public order”, which may be broadly applied across activities and religious associations. Loose interpretation of “public safety” violations by police and prosecutors is already apparent in cases brought against religious believers under the Administrative Code’s Article 20.2 (“Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket”) (see F18News 18 May 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2179).
Other prohibited aims are more specific, including “the encouragement of suicide or the refusal on religious grounds of medical assistance to persons in a life- or health-endangering condition” and “the motivation of citizens to refuse to fulfil their civic duties as established by law and to commit other illegal acts” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
These accusations have been made against Jehovah’s Witness communities in suits to have them liquidated as “extremist” (alongside more specific allegations of distribution of “extremist” literature), based on their refusal of blood transfusions and conscientious objection to military service (see eg. F18News 24 May 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2181).
Other communities may also be affected. The Theravada Buddhist community has failed in an appeal against an order to remove from a Buddhist website a verse of the Theravada Pali Canon giving an allegedly “detailed description of suicide” (see F18News 5 May 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2174).
Who can share beliefs?
– Only those with state permission from state-permitted groups
If acting on behalf of a religious group, individuals sharing belief must carry with them a document indicating that they have been granted authorisation by a general meeting of the group. The authorisation must also show that the group has “registered”, ie. notified the appropriate federal organ of its creation and the commencement of its activities (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Such notification is a requirement introduced by a 2015 change to the Religion Law, required all religious communities that do not have legal status to notify the authorities of their existence and activity. This includes names and addresses of all their members and addresses where any meeting takes place. Previously, an unregistered community was legally able to operate as a religious group, without informing the state or registration (see F18News 17 September 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2101).
The 2015 change – like the sharing beliefs restrictions – directly contravenes Russia’s human rights obligation not to require state permission for the exercise of the freedom of religion and belief (see the OSCE/Council of Europe Venice Commission Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities http://www.osce.org/odihr/139046).
– Only some without written authorisation
Under the sharing beliefs amendments, sharing beliefs on behalf of a religious organisation may be freely carried out by its director, members of its governing body, and its clergy. Other individuals must carry with them a document from the organisation’s governing body granting them the authority to share beliefs in its name. This document must also contain details of the organisation’s state registration and entry in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities.
The law stresses that religious associations (both organisations and groups) bear full responsibility for sharing beliefs carried out in their name by individuals whom they have approved (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
– Not groups without state permission
These regulations restrict the dissemination of beliefs in public to registered groups and organisations. Religious communities which have chosen on principle not to register, which include large numbers of Baptist churches across the country, will therefore by definition be breaking the law should they engage in any action outside their own places of worship aimed at informing others of their faith. Baptists have already faced prosecution under Administrative Code Article 20.2 (“Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket”) for holding prayer services in courtyards, and distributing literature from “mobile libraries” without notifying the authorities (see F18News 18 May 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2179).
Protestant leaders have described the requirement to carry authorising documents “not only absurd and insulting, but also .. the basis for mass persecution of believers for the violation of such provisions” (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
– Foreigners and stateless persons only with state permission
Foreign citizens (and stateless persons) may share beliefs only in the regions or other federal subjects in which the religious group or organisation they are representing is registered to operate (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
– Not allegedly “extremist organisations”
The law also states that sharing beliefs may not be carried out on behalf of organisations which have been liquidated by court order or whose activities have been blocked or banned on grounds of “extremism” or terrorism. Since such organisations are legally no longer in existence and therefore unable to authorise individuals to share beliefs as required by the amendment, it is unclear why this stipulation is necessary. It may nevertheless cause problems for some individuals.
Several Jehovah’s Witness congregations and one Muslim community have been dissolved because of alleged “extremist” activity. If prosecutors proceed with their threat to liquidate the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters near St Petersburg, thousands of local congregations across Russia could also face prohibition of their activities and individuals could be vulnerable to criminal charges for expressing their beliefs (see F18News 24 May 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2181).
Such cases are usually based on earlier convictions of the organisations or their members for distributing literature deemed to be “extremist”. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been keen to stress that such liquidations do not mean a ban on Jehovah’s Witness activity in the areas where these communities were based. However, police and prosecutors may now be able to use the new restrictions on sharing beliefs against former members who continue to do so (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
– Not individuals acting on their own or informally
By confining sharing beliefs to authorised representatives of registered groups and organisations, the amendment also effectively outlaws the sharing of beliefs by individuals purely on their own initiative, or who informally respond to the questions or comments of others (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Individual citizens who violate any of these restrictions and requirements will be liable to a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 Roubles. For organisations (legal entities), the fine stands at 100,000 to 1 million Roubles. Religious groups, while they may share beliefs in limited circumstances if registered (see above), are not legal entities – their members would therefore be subject to prosecution as individuals.
Foreigners may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 Roubles with the possibility of expulsion from Russia (see F18News 4 July 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2195).
Heavier penalties for “extremism” crimes
The package of laws also includes amendments to the Criminal Code which will increase punishments for offences under Article 282.2, Part 1 (“Organisation of the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”) and Part 2 (“Participation in the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”).
Article 282.2 is often used to convict Muslims who read Said Nursi’s works (see eg. F18News 29 June 2016 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2193) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (see eg. F18News 3 December 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2128) for exercising freedom of religion and belief.
Punishments under Article 282.2 were last increased in February 2014, having previously been raised in 2011 (see F18News 11 February 2014 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1927). Like the changes to the Religion Law, the Article 282.2 changes also come into force on 20 July 2016.
The new penalties are:
Part 1 (“Organisation of the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”): a fine of 400,000 to 800,000 Roubles or 2 to 4 years’ income; or 6 to 10 years’ imprisonment with a ban on working in one’s profession of up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for 1 to 2 years.
Part 2 (“Participation in the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”): a fine of 300,000 to 600,000 Roubles or 2 to 3 years’ income; or compulsory labour for 1 to 4 years with a ban on working in one’s profession for up to 3 years or with restrictions on freedom for up to 1 year; or 2 to 6 years’ imprisonment with a ban on working in one’s profession for up to 5 years or with restrictions on freedom for up to 1 year.
The previous penalties from February 2014 were:
Part 1: a fine of 300,000 to 500,000 Roubles or 2 to 3 years’ income; or compulsory labour for up to 5 years, with or without restrictions on freedom for up to 2 years; or 2 to 8 years’ imprisonment, with or without a ban on holding certain positions or engaging in certain activities for up to 10 years or without it and with or without restrictions ob freedom for up to 2 years.
Part 2: a fine of up to 300,000 Roubles or up to 2 years’ income; compulsory labour for up to 3 years with or without restrictions on freedom for up to one year; or imprisonment for up to 4 years, with or without a ban on holding certain positions or engaging in certain activities for up to 5 years and with or without restrictions on freedom for up to one year. (END)
For more background, see Forum 18’s surveys of the general state of freedom of religion or belief in Russia at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1722, and of the dramatic decline in religious freedom related to Russia’s Extremism Law at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1724.
A personal commentary by Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, about the systemic problems of Russian anti-extremism legislation, is at F18News 19 July 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1468.
A personal commentary by Irina Budkina, Editor of the http://www.samstar.ucoz.ru Old Believer website, about continuing denial of equality to Russia’s religious minorities, is at F18News 26 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570.
More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10.
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
“In some ways, this isn’t a surprise. There’s a lot wrong with Russia — we are witnessing a rising authoritarianism in a declining state.”