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June 28, 2016 - I hear about the law for the first time

Back in April, we were contacted by another missionary about the possibility of hosting two young evangelists who wanted to bring their children's Bible time ministry to Russia. I was hesitant to try it, because we have had trouble here trying to have ministry with kids. Russian law strictly requires parental permission before you can teach religion to children. The parents here in Oryol are especially suspicious of foreigners, and they think it is unpatriotic to teach their children any religion other than Russian Orthodoxy. We decided to give the evangelists a chance to come and try their program during the first week of July.

I learned that the two young men would be conducting their program with another missionary in the Moscow area, one week before they would be with us in Oryol. I wanted to see the program in action, so that I could know what to expect and how to prepare to help them when they came to Oryol. The missionary agreed to let me come on Tuesday, June 28, and observe the meetings.

When I arrived at the missionary's house early Tuesday morning, we had time for a cup of tea and a friendly chat. One of the first things he asked me was, "What are you going to do about the new law?" I said, "What new law?" He told me about a proposed law that would severely restrict missonary activities in Russia. I thought it was probably a false alarm. Similar laws have been proposed before, and usually the scary predictions come to nothing. In each case, the laws were either vetoed by the president or struck down by the high court.

Back in Oryol, I studied all the available news reports and found that such a bill had already passed the lower house of the Russian parliament. It still needed to pass the upper house and be signed by President Putin before it became law.

This was a package of laws specifically designed to combat terrorism. A section was added to regulate missionary activity, supposedly because of the threat that Muslims would pretend to be missionaries, and form cell groups to carry out acts of terrorism.

Here are some of the news articles which appeared at the time.

Barnabas Fund article

New York Times article

The main author of the law is Irina Yarovaya. She is generally considered a reactionary, a nationalist, and a right wing conservative. These words do not mean the same thing that they do in America. A right wing conservative in European politics is closer to the idea of a Fascist, like Hitler or Mussolini. Yarovaya has previously sponsored laws limiting civil rights in the name of state security. Yarovaya has a history of sponsoring poorly written legislation. In the Russian language, her last name means "springtime". Many news reports about this law refer to it as the "spring law" or the "spring package" of laws.

This bill was passed on the last day of the legislative session before September elections. I thought that it was something like a "hail mary pass" that would have little chance of becoming law.

I learned that we had some high profile allies with big pockets fighting against this. The law also requires all the cell phone companies to record every phone call, all text messages and other communications, and store the information for six months, and make all such information available to authorities. The four biggest telecom companies said it would cost them billions to comply, and fought hard against this. Edward Snowden spoke out against it. Rabbis, Othodox priests, Pentecostals, and Muslims came out against it. Academic leaders, the so-called intelligentsia, appealed to Putin to veto the law. I thought, surely the President will not go forward with a law that has such substantial opposition, but Putin controls the parliament so completely that it was puzzling to me how this could have passed without his guidance.

I spent the rest of the week in Oryol promoting the Bible time meetings. I pasted hundreds of posters on public bulletin boards, and handed out hundreds of invitations all over our part of town. I gave a lot of thought to the problem of attracting kids that might not have parental consent. I decided to not put our address on the poster. The poster said that parent’s permission is required. I gave them a phone number to call. When anybody called, I would go to the home and get the parents to sign a form. Only after the form was signed did I give the address of our house. That, in theory, should keep away anybody who does not have permission.

On Saturday, June 2, the two evangelists came to Oryol, and we spent the day promoting the meetings in the neighborhoods. By that time, the law had already passed the upper house of the parliament. At least twice while we were talking to kids, irate adults came over and told us we have no right to talk to children. They called us cultists and Baptists, which is pretty much the same thing to them. We moved along, trying not to make a scene. Based on the parental permissions, we expected at least four children to come to the first meeting on Sunday afternoon.

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