On July 6, 2016, president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin signed anti-terrorism legislature that had been approved by the State Duma on June 24, 2016 and the Federal Council on June 29, 2016. In the western press and Christian media, all hell broke loose.
Worst-case scenarios for the new laws’ application are evoked by strong headlines:
“Russia’s ‘Yarovaya Law’ Imposes Harsh New Restrictions On Religious Groups” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).
“Yarovaya Law. The Death Of The Russian Constitution” (Huffington Post).
“Draconian Law Rammed Through Russian Parliament. Outrageous Provisions to Curb Speech, Privacy, Freedom of Conscience” (Human Rights Watch).
“Brave New World: Russia’s New Anti-Terrorism Legislation” (Forbes).
“Russia’s ‘Yarovaya Law’ Imposes Restrictions on Evangelism, Speech” (Christianity Daily).
“Russia’s new ‘big brother law’ has Christians, Muslims and Jews fearing for their religious freedom” (Deseret News).
Some headlines even express defiance of the legislation:
“Churches to Russia: We’re not leaving” (Religion News Service).
This new legislation, which is basically an update to older anti-terror legislation, is being quickly assessed as a violation of human rights by the Russian Federation, similar to the law passed in June 2013—“For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”, also known in English-language media as the gay propaganda law. In the English language press, the anti-terror laws are being generally summed up, as in the article by the Huffington Post:
the new law makes it a crime not to report information about terrorist attacks and other, even much smaller crimes (throwback to the days when in the Soviet Union neighbors were writing false reports on each other out of fear being punished)
requires telecoms to assist the government to break into encrypted messages (the stocks for those telecoms crashed the day the law was signed)
increases the strongest penalty for “extremism” from four to eight years of imprisonment (posts on Russian social network VK that promote something unappealing for Kremlin are considered extremism as well)
children as young as fourteen are now considered old enough to be locked up
proselytizing, preaching, praying, or disseminating religious materials outside of “specially designated places,” like officially recognized religion institutions are considered a punishable crime
It all looks very Orwellian and unconstitutional—the Constitution of the Russian Federation, also cited in the article, provides the right to privacy.
But rather than swallow whole one interpretation of the law, let’s look at the legislation updated from its original form to the time of Putin’s signing, as it is described more dryly in the Russian news agency, TASS:
“The document retained the position that Russian Federation telephone companies save information on subscribers’ telephone connections for three years, and the content itself, including videos, for six months. Currently telephone companies in Russia save subscriber information for three years (passport data), their telephone numbers, and expenditure calculations produced from these numbers.
“Owners of messenger services and social networks … are not allowed to delete records of information and data transmission for a year instead of three years… When additional coding for electronic messages are used, the internet company must provide the FSB [Federal Security Service] with keys to decode these messages. Failure to disclose this information can lead to up to one million rubles [$16,000] fines.”
TASS describes in more detail just what religious activities are effected by the laws:
“A separate block of corrections [to the bill approved by the Duma on June 24] defines what ‘missionary activity’ is and forbids it to be carried out by religious communities with aims that contradict the law. The document also contains a ban on missionary activities aimed at disrupting social safety and order, extremist actions, forcing adherents to break up families, and intrusion upon the personality, rights, and freedom of citizens.
“Also forbidden is missionary activity aimed at inclining people towards suicide, obstructing the reception of compulsory education, inducing citizens to refuse to fulfill their civil duty as established by law.
“Missionary or proselytizing with violation of legislative requirements on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and religious congregation can lead to fines for citizens of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles [$80-$240], for legal entities from 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,500-$16,000). Foreign citizens may be deported from the Russian Federation. According to the new norms, disseminated religious literature, printed, audio and video materials must be marked with their official, full titles."
Terrorist crimes are being defined legally in that capacity—something beyond ordinary crimes. Longer prison terms are being provided for.
“There is a proposal to affix a new section in the criminal code of the Russian Federation among the crimes against the world and human safety—“international terrorism”—and establish culpability for it as up to life imprisonment. The criminal bar in the article on “terrorist acts” is being raised from eight to ten years and from ten to twelve years (if the crime was committed by a group or if it led to human death).
“The law gives a new, thorough definition of financing terrorism. One of them will be understood as, ‘providing or collecting means or financial services, knowing that they are meant to be used to finance organizations’ preparation or execution’ of terrorist crimes.
“Public calls to terrorism or public justification of it on the internet will brings a fine of up to one million rubles or imprisonment of five to seven years. By public justification is meant, ‘public declaration of accepting ideology and practice of terrorism as right, and requiring support and emulation.’ Participating in terrorist organizations may be punished by prison sentences of ten to twenty years (it is currently five to ten years).
“Failure to report the preparation or execution of terrorist crimes are planned to be punished by fines of 100,000 rubles, compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for one year. However, a citizen will not be liable for not reporting on the preparation or execution of his or her spouse’s or close relatives’ crimes."
Now we come to the part that causes particular emotional distress in the English language press: underage terrorists.
“In the package of laws, punishment is also harsher for the organization of illegal military formations or participation in them, including those formed abroad: the bar is raised by five year’s imprisonment. The Yarovaya package is supplemented with a new article introducing punishment for inclining or recruiting for mass disorder. These acts will be punished by fines of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles ($4770 to $11,144), or imprisonment of five to ten years.
“For ‘Inciting hatred or enmity as well as demeaning human dignity’, the minimal prison term is three years, maximum six. Analogously, the punishment for organizing the activities of extremist organizations, extremist societies, and financing extremist activities has been stiffened.
“The age threshold for willful terrorism is lowered to fourteen years."
A careful reading of these laws provides some insight and dampens the sensationalism. Does it give one the impression that Russian lawmakers are out to get Christian groups, as sites such as Religion News Service warn? “Religious organizations directly affected by the new laws are those with strong evangelization programs in Russia—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and other Protestant organizations with Baptist, Pentecostal and independent Christian roots,” that site reports. (They also report that all of these taken together make up no more than 1 percent of the Russian population). Are they saying that these groups’ missionary activities are “aimed at disrupting social safety and order, extremist actions, forcing adherents to break up families, and intrusion upon the personality, rights, and freedom of citizens; inclining people towards suicide, obstructing the reception of compulsory education, inducing citizens to refuse to fulfill their civil duty as established by law,” or that they violate “legislative requirements on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and religious congregation”? If their missionary work does have such aims then, yes, they are now punishable by law. Have there been sects in Russia with such aims? Yes, there have—and without having actually committed a crime or violation of public order, they have not been easy to deal with. But let’s focus on this principle of “preventative legislature”.
The Orthodox Christian collective experience, outlined in the writings of the holy fathers of the Church, has a deep understanding of the mental roots of sinful deeds. This patristic understanding can be traced to Scripture, notably the epistle of the apostle James:
If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (Jas. 3:2-8).
We are accustomed to seeing freedom of speech as a constitutional right, but it is a Christian’s duty to bridle the tongue. Can that be legislated? This is a shocking concept for us, but when we talk about preventative legislature, this description of what words can do certainly springs to mind.
Let’s also recall that terrorist acts are by no means theoretical in our days. Do we need to provide here a body count resulting from terrorist acts in the past ten years? We are all still reeling from only the most recent: Paris, Brussels airport, and now Nice. We hardly even pay attention to the thousands continually dying from explosions in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, although these are also real people dying violent deaths. All of these acts, going back to the Twin Towers and earlier, were somewhere propagated, financed, preached, and recruited using electronic mail, telephones, social networks, and internet sites.
The United States recognized this reality much earlier, and perhaps that is the reason why massive data collection began there probably much sooner than we even know. Microsoft alone stores all e-mail correspondence indefinitely! Of course, U.S. citizens also worry about how this information will ultimately be used. But the data is already being collected and stored, and this is unlikely to change.
Russia has also had more than its share of terrorism:
June 1995: Chechen militants attacked the city of Budennovsk in the Stavropol region (the Caucasus) and killed 146 people.
November 1996: an explosion in a nine-story apartment building in Caspiisk killed 68 people, including 21 children.
March 1999: 53 civilians died in an explosion at a city market in Vladikavkaz.
September 1999: apartment buildings were destroyed in Moscow and Buinaksk. In Moscow, 94 people died at night when their apartment building exploded on Guryanov St., and on September 13 another nighttime explosion took the lives of 121 people. 64 people died in the explosion in Buinaksk.
October 2002: 40 Chechen terrorists took captive the audience of a musical in the Dubrovka theatre and held them for two days during negotiations with the authorities. On October 26, the Russian special forces stormed the theatre. 750 captives were freed, while 130 captives and terrorists died.
September 1, 2004: militants held captive over 1000 schoolchildren along with parents and teachers in a grade school in Beslan, North Ossetia. The captives were kept in horrible conditions, without water or food and in constant fear of death. 335 people died when Russian forces stormed the building after hearing gunshots from within it. This included 186 children and seventeen teachers and school personnel.
March 2010: Chechen terrorists performed suicide bombings in two Moscow Metro stations, killing a total of 40 people.
January 2011: A suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, killing 37 and wounding 173. Chechen terrorist leader Doku Umarov claimed responsibility.
These are only the more high-profile tragedies—there were many other cases in between of kidnappings, and smaller-scale suicide bombings in Moscow subways and other public transportation in various cities of the Russian Federation.
So the real and present danger here is obviously not Pentecostals, etc. but extremist ideology being spread from Saudi Arabia. Just as travellers in airports are now subjected around the world to random searches, x-rays, and other security measures, so now is the Russian government working out methods of combating terrorism. This is a tragic reality of our very complex times.
But just the same, is it really necessary to curb missionary activity, as the American Christian and Mormon press complains? In some cases—yes it is, as the law states.
In the 1990s, the newly opened borders of the former Soviet Union experienced an influx of foreign missionaries. With all due respect for these organizations and their possibly good intentions, they were rather grossly ignoring the fact that Russia has been a Christian country since the year 988. Orthodox Christianity survived severe persecutions in the twentieth century, and by the nineties it was able to regain its proper place in Russian society. Orthodox Christianity as the most ancient, unchanged form of Christianity had no need of Pentecostal, Adventist, or Mormon missionaries, especially considering these organizations’ marked departure from traditional Christianity. Such groups can only bring confusion into a society that is predominantly Orthodox Christian, because they themselves are intolerant of Orthodoxy.
This of course is not even to mention such groups as the Scientologists, now infamous for their personality-destroying pseudo-religious methodology, or Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway station in 1995. The leader of this organization declared himself “Christ”; it was proclaimed a “dangerous religion” in Japan, and put under surveillance. The group had followers in Russia, where a criminal case was opened against them in April 2016; their facilities were raided and literature, cult items, and electronic information were confiscated.
Clearly there is such a thing as a dangerous religion. We are accustomed to the phrase, “freedom of religion” as an alienable right. But what about religions that believe they must kill other people in order to be “saved”?
With all the recent, serious events it is not the time to raise a hue and cry about a house church being fined. Especially since this has not become a serious problem in post-Soviet Russia, and religion is not being persecuted in principle as it was under the Communists.
Religion News Service quoted Jesuit priest and chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Thomas Reese: “These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom.” This inflammatory statement presupposes that the Russian government is waging war against human rights and religious freedom as the Soviet government did before it. The truth remains to be seen. But surveying the carnage resulting from widespread “religious freedom”—the freedom to deny what Christ has taught us through the Holy Scriptures: to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, to follow Him, for He is meek and humble of heart, to love our neighbors as ourselves regardless of who our neighbors are—we are faced with hard choices. And I would rather invite all the Christian missionaries who have come to Russia with new and strange doctrines to taste and see what the Russian Orthodox Church has to offer. They might just question whether they really need a house church.