Russia's new 'big brother law' has Christians, Muslims and Jews fearing for their religious freedom

Posted July 13

A controversial anti-terror bill that was signed into law on Thursday by Russian President Vladimir Putin is sparking concerns and fears over its potential impact on missionary work.

Latvian media outlet Meduza reported last month that the legislation revises numerous laws that are currently on the books and does so "in ways that could have profound consequences for people living in Russia."

Russian lawmakers reportedly began drafting a number of bills in April, citing last year's deadly bombing of a Russian aircraft as well as November attacks in Paris, France, as the impetus for the newfound restrictions, Russia Today reported.

The package of amendments are collectively known as the "Yarovaya law,” named after Irina Yarovaya, the Russian politician who authored the text. Critics, though, have dubbed the package the "Big Brother Law" due to its controversial elements.

From governing social media to requirements that telephone companies store calls and text messages, the new amendments are sweeping. Cellular companies have expressed their dismay, claiming that the bill could cost them billions, with no reimbursement or payment from the Russian government.

More stringent penalties for supporting, performing or financing terrorism were also included in the bill, with internet calls for terrorism or related public justifications for such acts via social media also becoming punishable.

But it's what the legislation will purportedly do to the missionary field that has raised some eyebrows among the faithful.

The law creates a broad definition for missionary work, and will restrict any such activity if it is not undertaken by individuals who are affiliated with registered organizations. Additionally, the locations where such work can unfold would be restricted to houses of worship and other related religious sites, critics claim.

The evangelization laws are sparking quite a bit of reaction from faith leaders and media outlets, with Christianity Today warning that the provisions, which take effect on July 20, crack down on sharing faith online, in homes and in any other location that isn't a church building recognized by the Russian government.

Also, missionaries must be permitted by an official religious organization, with fines for violations reportedly ranging from $780 for an individual to $15,500 for an organization; additionally, foreigners can possibly by deported if they are found to be in violation, according to the Evangelical Alliance.

While the impact of the law all depends on how fervently it is enforced, the outlet also speculated that Christians, among others, wouldn't even be able to send an email inviting friends or loved ones to church.

One of the other related problems is that the definitions of extremism and terrorism are purportedly vague, leading to fears that the law could be abused by Russian officials, according to Voice of America.

Joel Griffith of the Slavic Gospel Association told Mission Network News that there will be big problems for missionaries and others who choose to share the gospel outside of their church, especially if the law is enforced as it is now written.

Despite protest from many Protestant leaders, the bill passed both houses of the Federal Assembly of Russia — the nation's legislature — last month before Putin signed it into law this week.

Andrew McChesney, editor of the Adventist Review, warned of what's to come prior to its passage in a piece published in late June. In it, he cited an open letter from Oleg Goncharov, who directs the public affairs and religious liberty department at Seventh-Day Adventist Church's Euro-Asia Division.

Goncharov wrote that believers would not be able to abide by the law's requirements, saying that "the religious situation in the country will grow considerably more complicated and many believers will find themselves in exile and subjected to reprisals because of our faith."

And it's not only Christians who are speaking out against the regulations, with the Guardian reporting that Muslim and Jewish groups are also frustrated. More specifically, Islamic adherents in both the political and religious realms have taken aim at the crackdown on religious missionary activities.

Restrictions on missionary activity are nothing new — and in a world that is currently gripped over fear and debate surrounding radical extremism, countries are bound to discuss and enact controversial measures aimed at containing the problem. Only time will tell how Russia's recent decision will play out.

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