East Europe

Russian Christians welcome ‘missionary activity’ court ruling

A prayer car for Pastor Sergei Stepanov. Photo credit: Praise International

Legal experts cautiously welcomed a ruling which they hope may reduce prosecutions against Christians for “missionary activity” in Russia.

Baptist pastor Sergei Stepanov appealed to Russia’s Constitutional Court after he was convicted for posting an invitation to an Easter service at another church on his VKontakte social network page. In his appeal, Pastor Stepanov said language used to describe “missionary activity” in the country’s Religion Law amendments was too vague.

The Constitutional Court refused to consider the pastor’s appeal. But instead judges issued guidance stating that “missionary activity” could only be described as such when it involved disseminating information “among persons who are not participants (members, followers).”

Since 2016, when Russia introduced changes to its Religion Law, many Christians have been prosecuted under vague “missionary activity” amendments, which were taken to include making a speech, posting on social media, inviting people to church, or even publicising church events. Heavy fines were imposed on Russian Christians, as well as members of other religions, and foreign Christians living in the country were fined and deported.

The draconian measures also punished churches and other religious groups for holding services or events without displaying their official name, or printing it on literature, audio or video material.

Although religious freedom remains severely restricted in Russia, as individuals and religious groups cannot propagate their faith, it is hoped the court’s guidance might reduce the number of prosecutions against Christians in future.

Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin told the human rights organisation Forum 18: “Thanks to this definition, we hope to change radically the approach of the courts to missionary work.”

Between July 2016 and November 2017, there were 202 prosecutions under the Religion Law amendments, 53% of them against Protestant Christians.