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September 30, 2016 - Appeal hearing, part 2
Thursday night, two men from the American embassy came to Oryol to attend Friday morning's hearing. As before, I met them at the train station and helped them get to their hotel. After they checked in, I waited in the lobby. They were going to bring their luggage to their rooms, and then we would have supper together. As soon as they went in the elevator and started upwards, all the lights in the building went out! They were stuck on the elevator for about 15 minutes, until somebody came and pried the door open to let them out. I told them that I always like to show off my nice city when visitors come, and things like this never happen when I don't have guests.
Then we went to my favorite restaurant, which is never crowded, but this time it was packed with people. They were having a 50% off sale that night, so although we got a good price, the best food was sold out and service was extremely slow. At least we had a lot of time to talk, and the food was pretty good once it finally came.
At 10 am on Friday morning, we all assembled at the court house. Last time, we were in courtroom number 6. This time, we were directed to courtroom number 7. This room is a little bigger and more intimidating, and the most obvious feature is an old Soviet style "cage" for a defendant who is in police custody. Fortunately, I was not required to sit in the cage.
--the courtroom cage--
The two American embassy men were there, and this time I had three lawyers from Moscow instead of two. There were no TV journalists this time, but there were more people from local evangelical churches who came to watch. Six people from our Bible study group were there. The judge came in at 10 am and court was in session.
The charges and the appeal were briefly reviewed, but both sides agreed that it was not necessary to read all of the documents again. The policeman called a witness - the woman who wrote the original complaint and police report. It was interesting to learn that she is a city official. Her title is something like the substitute assistant to the director for cultural affairs, so she is not just an offended citizen; she has some official capacity. She recounted how she saw my literature glued to a bulletin board, and when she saw the word "missionary", she was surprised, because she understood that the new Yarovaya laws made missionary activity illegal. She said that the first time she saw my literature posted, she was not able to take a picture of it, and she did not take a copy of it to the police. Then, when she saw another of my invitations, she photographed it, and took a copy of it to the police.
This answered a question that had been in my mind from the beginning. I know that I never glued any of my tracts to a bulletin board, although I did glue some posters the previous month, to promote our children's program. I imagine that she, in her capacity as substitute assistant to the director for cultural affairs, saw my poster and complained to the police. They may have asked her, did you get a copy of it? No. Did you take a picture of it? No. Well, we need some evidence. Here are two tracts that he gave us when we questioned him the first time. Let's glue these up, take a picture of them, tear them down, and write a police report. Then we will have evidence. Obviously, I cannot prove that it happened that way, but perhaps it did. In any case, it is perfectly legal to glue posters up on these bulletin boards. The police thought that the word "missionary" on the tract proved that I was guilty of illegal missionary activity.
The police also introduced new evidence, which should have been presented from the very beginning. They brought in documents to show I am affiliated with BIMI of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which they said was further proof that I was acting as a foreign agent, representing a foreign religious organization. My lawyer and I were given time to examine the documents, and we explained to the court that BIMI is a service organization that collects my donations, forwards them to me, and provides other support services. I am not an employee of BIMI, nor do I teach "BIMI doctrine", and I am certainly not trying to get Russian people to "join BIMI". By the law's own definition of missionary activity, I have not done anything illegal.
Then a witness from our side was called. His name is Sasha, and he only attends our services about once a month. Actually, he is a member of the local Russian Baptist church, but he likes to visit all the churches in town. He usually comes whenever we have a picnic, or on some other occasion when we have free food, but he is a nice guy, and we like him. Sasha happened to be visiting on August 14th, and he gave a statement to the police, in which he said that he understood that I was the "pastor" of the "church". In his testimony today, he admitted that he was not aware of any organization to which I belong, and that I have never tried to get him to join any group or organization. He was a little bit confused about the details, but his testimony, on the whole, was helpful to our side.
I was asked if I wanted to make a statement, and I said yes, I did. (I want to thank everyone who has been praying for me, because at that moment, I felt the unseen hand of God's help upon me.) I started by saying "When I first came to live in Russia 14 years ago...". The judge interrupted, "Don't go all the way back, just talk about now." I said, "Your honor, this is relevant to the case at hand. I came here in the first place because it became legal to preach, teach, witness, and distribute literature in Russia. Thirty years ago, in Soviet times, it was strictly forbidden. Now, in the new democratic Russia, the constitution and the law protect a person's right to share his faith with others, even if he is not a Russian citizen. I came here to exercise those constitutional rights, and I did so without any trouble for 14 years. A few months ago, when I heard about the Yarovaya law, I thought that maybe the time had come when I could no longer legally share my faith. I am determined to be a law-abiding citizen, and I would pack my bags and go back to America right now rather than violate the law. When I obtained a copy of the Yarovaya law, which I now hold here in my hand, I read the section of the law which deals with missionary activity. It clearly defines, for the purposes of this law, what constitutes missionary activity." I then began to read the paragraph which gives the definition. The judge interrupted, and told me not to read it; she knows what it says. I continued, "Even though Russian is not my native tongue, even I was able to understand that my activity does not meet this definition, so I have not broken any laws. I am exercising the rights guaranteed by the constitution and the laws of the Russian Federation."
As I was speaking, I noticed that my attorney sitting next to me was silently applauding me under the table where the judge could not see. When I finished, he gave me a huge thumbs up sign under the table. Praise the Lord! It was like the wisdom of Solomon had come to me from somewhere else, and just flowed out of my mouth. I had not rehearsed or prepared a statement. It had come to me "in that same hour".
Two of my lawyers then spent about an hour repeating the main points of my defense, and reciting the relevant points of the law. The judge interrupted them several times, but they said all that they wanted to say. One of my lawyers was a federal judge for 15 years, so he had a tendency to take over the courtroom. The presiding judge didn't like that very much, but we presented our case.
You might think that the judge, having had ten extra days to think about this case, would be ready to make a decision. She ended the session at about noon, saying, "I need more time to think about this. Come back today at 4pm. I will be here to render my decision NO SOONER THAN 4 pm."
Since we had some spare time, the men from the American embassy came with me for a short walk through the center of town. I showed them the city park, and we walked along the river as I told them some of the history of Oryol. We came to a restaurant that I have always wanted to try, and we had a very tasty lunch of grilled meat and vegetables.
Later, we all returned to the courthouse to hear the judge's decision at 4pm. There was no testimony, no arguments - we were there just to hear the judge read her decision. Everyone stood when she came in and she took her place at the bench. This time, the TV cameras were there. It seemed that they had already known that no decision would be made in the morning session. We all continued standing as she read. She had determined that I was guilty of illegal missionary activity. She repeated many of the points that had been stated in my original charges, but it only took her about 5 minutes to finish her statement, and then it was over. She left the courtroom.
My lawyer said that, unfortunately, he had been about 99% sure the judge on this level would not be free to decide in our favor. She is probably about 5 years away from retirement, and she would not likely risk her career to make a courageous decision in favor of a foreigner.
So, now we have to take it to the next level of appeal, which is probably going to be here in Oryol. The lawyer does not expect anything to change until we get past the local system, and can get into the upper level courts in Moscow. I assured him that I would keep pressing the appeal all the way to the highest court, and he assured me that this case will play an important role in determining the future of religious freedom in Russia, not just for foreign missionaries, but also for ordinary Russian believers. My attorneys are confident that the law is on our side, and the courts must eventually rule in our favor if any impartial justice can still be found in Russia.
Obviously, this is a disappointment. I was hoping to wrap things up here and return to my family as soon as possible, but the issue is an important one, and duty demands that I press the case as far as I can.
Please continue to pray. I am overwhelmed at the feedback I am getting from people in many countries who are following the case and praying for us. Your prayers are felt, and we need them now more than ever. God bless you.
My brother in Florida was bringing children to church on a bus last Sunday. He says, "One of my little bus girls, around 10 years old, was getting off the bus at church. I was in the driver's seat. She stopped and said, "How did that missionary's trial turn out?" I said, "That's my brother, and they decided to have the trial next Friday." She said, "Well, last Monday I got up at 4:00 in the morning to pray for him." I'm wiping tears from my eyes again as I am typing this. Apparently all the kids at Junior church here were asked to pray for you last week."
You can be sure I wiped a few tears of my own when I read that. I am so grateful for all my brothers and sisters in Christ who have joined together in prayer for the work of God here in Russia. Thank you.