The Mormon church reassigned 65 missionaries who werecalled to serve in Russia, and is renaming others “volunteers” who will focuson community service rather than converting new members, in response tosweeping anti-terrorism legislation passed in Russia this summer that includedprovisions banning proselytizing in public.
Mormons are one of many religious groups struggling tooperate under the new law, which bans preaching or disseminating religiousmaterials except by authorized officials in registered religious buildings orsites. The restrictions extend to private homes and online communications.
The law’s passage and approval by President VladimirPutin drew strong criticism from human rights and religious freedom advocatesinside Russia and around the world.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association cancelled aWorld Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians that wasscheduled to take place in Moscow next month, and rescheduled the event laterin Washington, D.C., citing the new Russian law that “severely limitsChristians’ freedoms.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom,created by Congress, strongly condemned the measure, arguing that it would makeit very difficult for religious groups to operate in Russia.
Anuttama Dasa, spokesman for the International Societyfor Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as Hare Krishnas, said the law is“frightening” a lot of religious communities.
“The law originally started as anti-terrorist, but itcompletely opened the door to persecution of religious minorities inparticular,” he said.
A month after the restrictions went into effect on July20, at least seven people had been charged under it, according to a report byForum 18, a news service based in Norway that monitors religious freedom inRussia and Central Asia.
The list includes a Baptist preacher from the UnitedStates who was charged with holding religious services in his home andadvertising them on public bulletin boards. He was convicted and fined, but heis appealing the case.
Religious minorities in Russia have also struggled underan anti-extremism law that since 2007 has defined religious extremism aspromoting “the superiority of one’s own religion” and does not require thethreat or use of violence.
Many nonviolent Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses have beencharged and convicted under the law. And a federal list of banned “extremist”material now exceeds 3,000 banned religious texts.
In the former Soviet Union, the government promotedatheism and repressed religious organizing by closing churches and synagogues,or imprisoning or executing religiousleaders or devotees.
After the fall of Communism, it adopted a new approach ofreligious tolerance. There was a flurry of religious activity, with formerlyunderground religious groups opening up and foreign missionaries moving intothe country.
“There was a backlash against it almost immediately,”said Geraldine Fagan, an advocate and author of Believing in Russia — ReligiousPolicy after Communism.”
While the federal policy promoted open religiousexpression, many local leaders were resistant and pushed for restrictions,which have increased over time.
Today a majority — nearly 70 percent — of Russia’s 143million people identify as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent consider themselvesMuslim, according to a 2013 poll cited by the U.S. Commission on InternationalReligious Freedom. A small minority adhere to other faiths.
Experts say most Russians remain skeptical of differentreligions, particularly from outside the country.
Josh Harrison, who served a Mormon mission in the Samararegion in Russia from 2013 to 2015, said much of his job was to overcomestigma.
“There was propaganda that we were some kind of cult orspy system because we were American,” he said.
During the Russian invasion and annexing of the Ukrainianregion of Crimea, there was a spike in anti-American sentiment brought on bythe United States’ support of anti-Russian protests in Ukraine. Harrison saidmissionaries stopped wearing their name tags as a security measure, so theywould not be easily identifiable as Americans.
He said the regional governments were strict in theirsupervision. It was onerous to get visas approved and re-approved in each newcity and he spent “a lot of time in taxis” bringing his passport from oneoffice to another.
Last month, six Mormon missionaries in the same regionhad to be reassigned because of visa infractions. Five went to other countriesand one returned home.
James E. Andrik, associate General Counsel for theJehovah’s Witnesses, which counts about 175,000 members in Russia, said thecrack down on missionary work strikes at a core tenet of his faith thatrequires all members to be missionaries. “It’s a commandment from Jesus to talkabout the good news of the kingdom. That’s why we witness,” he said.
He said obeying the new law will be difficult.
“We are law abiding scrupulously until men are askingsomething that only God should decide,” he said.
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