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September 1, 2016 - Date set for appeal
(Important note! A previous version of this update said that my hearing was scheduled for September 12th. That is not correct - the hearing is scheduled for September 19th.)
Last Friday, I received a registered letter from the court, informing me that the case had been transferred to the next higher court for appeal. It did not say when the appeal hearing would take place. I called the courthouse, and they said the date had not yet been set, but that I would be informed. My attorneys and I were a little bit suspicious that they might try to rush the appeal through the system without letting us know about it, and deny us the right to present our case.
I called them again on Monday, and still no date was set. On Tuesday, I went to the courthouse and went to the office to personally ask if the date had been set. They told me I don't have to come back every day, they will contact me. I called them again on Wednesday. I wanted them to know that I am paying attention. Today, Thursday, I called again and they told me that the hearing has been set for September 19th at 11 am.
My attorneys from Moscow will be coming here for the hearing.
Please pray that these charges will be dropped.
Here are some thoughts about these charges and our appeal. Some have asked, "Well, if missionary activity is illegal, then aren't you guilty? You are a missionary, aren't you?"
In my case, I certainly consider myself to be a missionary, but the narrow definition of missionary activity in the law does not describe what I do. To be honest, the law was so poorly written that it is virtually ineffective.
My dad told me yesterday about a law in our home state of Michigan that required motorcycle helmets a few years ago. The first version of the law required that a rider must "have a helmet". The first person to be charged was acquitted, because he did have a helmet - it was strapped to the back of his motorcycle. The next version of the law required that a rider must "wear a helmet". The first case under that law was thrown out because the person was wearing a helmet - on his knee. These poorly written laws were ineffective and did not produce the intended result. Eventually, the law was written to describe the wearing of a helmet in great detail.
The new law in Russia says, "For the purposes of this law, missionary activity shall be defined 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 these five elements is missing, then the activity can not be considered missionary activity in a legal sense, and is not controlled by this law.
Article 28 of the Russian constitution says, "Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with others, any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them."
Article 3 of federal law #125, on freedom of conscience and religious associations, echoes the constitution, "Freedom of conscience and freedom of creed are guaranteed in the Russian Federation, including the right to confess, individually or jointly with others, any religion or not to confess any, and the freedom to choose, change, possess or disseminate religious or other convictions and to act in accordance with them." then it adds, "Foreign citizens and persons without citizenship who are legally present on the territory of the Russian Federation have the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of creed on an equal footing with citizens of the Russian Federation, and bear responsibility as established by federal laws for the violation of the laws on freedom of conscience, freedom of creed and religious associations."
The new law is blatantly unconstitutional, but the president signed it, so constitutionality is not our strongest defense in this case. Our appeal is based on the fact that I did not act as an authorized representative of a registered religious association, therefore I did not break THIS law. In other words, under the current legal and political situation, I can only continue being a missionary here by trying as hard as I can to prove in court that I am not a missionary.
We may expect that the next time they write a law, it will be more effectively written to accomplish their obvious intentions.
A Hare Krishna man who was charged with violating this law has already been acquitted. I am not familiar with all the details of the Krishna case. It was dismissed in a small city court in a small provincial town. If the judge was very familiar with the law, he could have realized that the definition of missionary activity in the new law is a very narrow definition that did not apply to the facts of the case. The Hare Krishna man was sharing his faith according to his constitutional rights. I was doing the same, so my attorneys and I are convinced that the law is on our side.