Russia (IMB/MNN) — New legislation being considered by Russian lawmakers could drastically restrict missions activity if made into law. Restrictions could include requiring missionaries and Russian Christians to obtain permission to engage in missionary activity and limiting its locations and participants, such as tourists and minors.
According to the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, while the proposals are currently in the draft stages, language introduced by the Russian Ministry of Justice Oct. 12 indicates that if these laws are enacted, they will greatly restrict religious freedom.
Russian Baptist officials say they believe the new language primarily targets Roman Catholics and Protestants, and it appears already to have found favor with leaders of Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism — Russia's four most prominent religions.
"Of course, when measures like this are talked about, we are always concerned, and we should look at them with a measure of seriousness," said Ed Tarleton, a leader of IMB work in Russia. "Evangelicals have enjoyed days of openness and freedom, so when lawmakers start talking about language that is contrary to that, we become concerned."
The proposed changes include allowing only religious groups who have been registered in Russia for at least 15 years to apply for permission to engage in missionary activity. Foreigners in Russia on a temporary visa, such as a tourist visa, would be excluded from engaging in missionary work.
Russian Baptist leaders add that wording in the proposed legislation makes no distinction between professional missionaries and average believers. "Practically all believers will become susceptible to penal sanction," says Yuri Sipko, president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.
In addition, the new language indicates that missions activity will not be allowed in hospitals, orphanages or homes for invalids and the aging without the approval of government officials. Missionary activity would be prohibited on the grounds of government buildings. The proposed measures also take aim at minors, saying that Russian minors may not be present at religious activities or be given media materials without their parents' consent.
Over the past decade, Baptists in Russia as well as other Protestants have been involved with social work — addressing the issues of drug and alcohol abuse. Sipko recently wrote, "Without missionary activities, drunkenness and the abuse of narcotics will only increase. If the state begins to destroy the social ministry of churches, it will be forced to build more prisons."
IMB missionary Andy Leiniger has been working with Russian Baptists in Siberia as they develop social ministry programs. "If these laws were to pass and be enforced, they would officially shut them [the ministry centers] down," Leiniger said. "But I think it would be very hard to unofficially stop the work that is being done when it comes to helping people get away from their addictions."
Baptist leaders are most concerned about the ambiguity of the language in the proposals. "Right now, it is like we are driving down the road and have speed limits and stop signs to tell us what we can and cannot do and police to enforce those specific rules," Tarleton said. "If these new proposals remain as ambiguous as they appear to be at this stage, it would be like changing everything to caution signs, and religious groups would constantly be evaluated by officials making judgment calls based on their interpretation of the new laws."
Tarleton and Russian Baptist leaders have urged the worldwide religious community to join them in prayer as Russian lawmakers consider the proposals. Pray that language restricting missionary activity in Russia will be excluded from new legislation. Also pray for Russian Baptist churches and leaders as they work with government officials, and for IMB missionaries serving in Russia as they continue to minister in these uncertain times.