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July 7, 2016 - Putin signs the law

We went ahead with our Bible time ministry for the week, even though the police investigators showed up Sunday night. We had rainy weather, so that affected us some, but 1 little girl came on Monday, 2 kids on Tuesday, and 4 for most of the rest of the week. The young evangelists were very well prepared, and the kids responded well. Seven different kids came during the week, and four of them made professions of faith. God was good, and I am glad we decided to do this, even though I was not confident about it. It was a great week.

Putin signed the new anti-terrorism law on Thursday. News reports claimed that part of the law made it illegal to hold religious meetings in private houses, and outlawed personal witnessing and most foreign missionary activity. As I began to research the details, I thought it was possible that this could be the end of our ministry here.

The next week, our young evangelists went on to ministry in other parts of Russia. I spent much of that week reading, translating, studying, and analyzing the new anti-terrorism law, which seemed to put severe restrictions on missionary activity. At first glance, it looked like our ministry here was going to become illegal on July 20. Most of the news media stories were reporting it that way. The law calls for deportation of foreigners who violate these parts of the law. I thought that we were going to have to sell our apartment and our church house, and leave the country.

As I read and translated the law, I began to notice that every mention of “missionary activity” referred back to a section of the law that provided a narrow legal definition of missionary activity. Without getting into the thick weeds, this law defines missionary activity as:

1) activity by a officially registered religious organization

2) carried out by an authorized representative of that organization

3) which publicly propagates the doctrine of that organization, using media

4) among people who are not members of that organization

5) with the goal of convincing those people to become members of that organization

If any one of those five elements is missing, then the activity cannot be considered missionary activity in relation to the provisions of this law. Since I am not part of any registered religious association, and I am not authorized by any such organization, and do not propagate an organization’s doctrine, and do not try to convince people to join a registered organization, even if I use media in public, then nothing that I do should be considered to be missionary activity by this law.

The Russian constitution clearly states that every citizen and every legal foreigner has the right to practice and propagate their personal faith in Russia. Since my ministry here has always been carried out in the capacity of a private individual, meeting with people in my own private home, the authorities cannot say that I am carrying out illegal missionary activity. I certainly consider myself a missionary, but this law is written in such a way that it cannot consider me to be a missionary. I thought, “I am just being naïve. It is wishful thinking to expect that they would write a great big law that basically does nothing”.

Then, I spent four hours on July 18 watching an online legal seminar from the Slavic Center for Law and Justice. This is an important civil rights legal group in Russia that has successfully defended religious rights, even in Russia’s supreme constitutional court. It was a very boring experience to watch lawyers speak in Russian for four hours, but they all confidently said the same thing. The restrictions of the law are very wide, but the definition of missionary activity is so narrow that it renders the law ineffective.

They called the law “moot” (of little or no practical value, meaning, or relevance; purely academic). They said that people like us can ignore this law, because it doesn’t apply to us. They referred over and over again to the “five points” of the definition. They gave many examples of things that every individual has a right to do in Russia, including:

- giving someone a tract, book, newspaper, DVD, magazine
- meeting in a home for worship, prayer, preaching, rituals
- speaking to someone on the street about your faith
- putting literature in mailboxes

Many of the lawyers said that, this being Russia, some authorities will certainly try to use the law to stop missionaries. They expect problems, but they were very confident that they will win, even if it goes all the way to a court case. This legal group has won cases like this since the “freedom of conscience” law was enacted in 1997. It seemed to me that they were almost licking their chops, eager to challenge this law. They spoke as if this were a slam dunk. They said that over 3500 people were watching the seminar live online, and they said to all of us, “If anyone shows up to cause trouble, call us immediately. We will defend you. We will take the case all the way to the highest court if necessary. That’s what we are here for.”

So, the law was signed by President Putin on July 7, and it took effect on July 20. I decided to continue doing everything we usually do. Maybe we would be a little quieter than usual for a few days, and wait to see if missionaries in other places are targeted, but the bottom line is, this law does not stop us. We may expect further laws in the future, and they will no doubt be written in a way that is more effective against us. It is apparent that a tide of totalitarianism is rising in Russia. This time, God has confused our enemies and caused their efforts to be in vain.

In the weeks following the signing of the law, waiting for more bad news, it was sometimes difficult to stay encouraged, but God kept giving us blessings to remind us that He is in control. I received a message from a supporting church that they were raising all of their missionaries' support levels to $75 a month. They didn't know anything about the new problems here. The timing of a little good news like this was very encouraging. Praise the Lord - He is in charge and not worried. Our memory verse at church for the month: Isaiah 40:28 - Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. I picked that verse before I heard anything about the new law. Everytime we read the verse together in service, I reminded the people (and myself) that we do not need to fear.

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