First Christian arrested under Putin's religious extremism law
The first foreign missionary has been arrested under Russian President Putin's law banning missionary activity outside officially registered Church buildings. Donald Ossewaarde, a US Baptist minister, was arrested on Sunday August 14th as he conducted a Bible study group in his home; he was taken to the local police station where he was charged with conducting missionary activities in violation of the new law. On the same day, he was brought before a judge who summarily convicted him and ordered him to pay a fine of 40,000 rubles, about £550.
Pastor Ossewaarde gives an hour by hour account of his arrest and trial on his website:
"Church starts every Sunday promptly at 11 am with a congregational song. We have prayer time, announcements, a memory verse, and more songs.
Three policemen came into the house while we were singing. They did not knock on the door or ring the bell; they just walked inThey wanted to ask questions, but I told them they would have to wait till after the service. I invited them to stay for the service. They were there for singing and the entire sermon.
After the service, they asked questions for about 45 min. They talked to all the people, too and wrote reports. They said they needed a complete package of documents on us just in case any questions arise. I asked if there had been any complaints against me. They said no.
They said we needed to go to the police station for routine fingerprints. Ruth and I got in their car and they drove us to the station. It was raining. I went with them into the office, behind the locked door, while Ruth waited in the front waiting area. They scanned my fingers and checked the database for any criminal history. They asked a few more questions, and then they said, "We lied, there is a complaint against you." They began to writing a ticket to charge me with breaking the law. I called the lawyers, and they said to write on the ticket that I categorically disagree that I broke the law. They promised to help me if it goes further."
I had been in the police station for two and a half hours while they filled out paperwork. I was charged with the crime of breaking the new religion law, which is a matter for the federal court. There were two charges against me:
1) I was accused of gluing two Gospel tracts to a bulletin board at the entrance of an apartment building. They showed me the tracts. They also showed me a police report, written by a young woman. She wrote something like this: "I was walking with my friend, when I saw two announcements glued to our bulletin board. They attracted our attention, because they were invitiations (sic) for people to come to a home and study the Bible with a Baptist preacher. My friend and I were shocked! We even felt a little bit scared and disgusted that foreign religious cultists were active in our own home town. We took pictures of these papers with our phones. I give you copies of these pictures with this report. We indignantly ripped these papers off the board, and brought them to the police station to report this dangerous activity, as any patriotic citizen would do."
This was an interesting story, except for one thing. I have never in all my life ever glued a Gospel tract to a bulletin board. I have glued thousands of posters to these boards, which is totally legal, but never a Gospel tract. I told the police just that. They showed me the photographs. The tracts were mine, of course. I make them myself with my computer and printer. Since 2002, I have distributed over 300,000 tracts like this in Oryol, but I always put them in mailboxes, or give them personally to people. It is obvious to me that the police set up this whole story. When they came looking for a children's meeting on July 3rd, I gave them copies of all the literature that we distribute. I made sure that each of the four policemen received his own Gospel tract, hoping that one of them might be touched by the Gospel message. It seems that two of these tracts ended up being glued to a board. I have no doubt that the young lady who wrote the report is a girlfriend of one of the policemen."
Russia's new draconian Religion Law
Russia's new Religion Law, known as the "Yarovaya Law, is part of President Putin's new anti-terrorism legislation which now defines missionary activity by all unregistered religious groups as "extremism". Chapter 24 of the new 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."
The law prohibits any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings, or any property without permission, and bars the conversion of residential property to religious use. It also bans sharing faith online.
Thomas J. Reese, who heads the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said:
"The new restrictions will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people. Neither these measures nor the currently existing antiextremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards."
As the Catholic Church is registered with the state, and bishops and priests are circumspect about the Catholic Church's public profile it is not thought that the new law will impact the lives of Catholics. However, the arrest and conviction of Donald Ossewaarde confirms fears that the law will be vigorously applied against Baptists and evangelical Christians, who for religious reasons refuse to register with the state.
A missionary Catholic priest serving in Russia explained to CNA the impact of Putin's restrictive measures on the Catholic Church just after it was signed into law, “We’re very careful to say that our mission is to Catholics, and we are there to find the remnant of the Catholics and to serve them. We don’t proselytize on the streets, because even if it wasn’t against the law, it would certainly be very dangerous.”
Around the world we are witnessing governments pass legislation that restricts freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Such intolerance towards religion is not restricted to Muslim countries or totalitarian states but also includes many countries in the so-called Free World. We can also see a trickle down effect of governmental hostility towards religion in intolerant regulations passed into law by professional bodies, local councils, and employers. This official intolerance towards believers is just the tip of the iceberg beneath which is a dark mass of informal intolerance in the public arena and workplace.
The Catholic Church defends religious freedom as an inalienable right of individuals, but she does recognise restrictions to this freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in religious and moral matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of man. But the exercise of freedom does not entail the putative right to say or do anything." (CCC, 1747).
Of course freedom in religious and moral matters does not mean the freedom to promote a harmful religious belief, such as Satanism, or immoral actions, such as homosexual sex acts. By no stretch of the imagination can the missionary work of Baptists and evangelicals in Russia come under this licit restriction of freedom of belief. President Putin's Religion Law is an unjust interference by the State in the autonomy of Christians to fulfil the Great Commission to spread the Gospel and baptise sinners into the new life of Christ.