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February 14, 2016 - Supreme Court Decision
Happy Valentine's day to everybody!
When I returned to Russia on January 20, I continued to check the website of the Russian Supreme Court every day, to see if they had put my case on their calendar. They have had the appeal in their hands since November 25, and they are supposed to take action within two months.
Early on Sunday morning, January 29, I checked the court website. My case was on their list as usual, but this time, there was an added notation that the decision of the lower court had been upheld. The note was dated January 20th, but I am sure that this note had not been on the website prior to the 29th. I contacted my lawyers, and they had not yet received any information from the court.
Yesterday, several Russian news sources came out with the story that I had lost my appeal. Some of them erroneously reported that I had already left the country. Some of them reported that I have lived in Russia for 20 years, when in fact I have lived here for only 14 years. Don't believe everything that you read in the news.
My attorneys in Moscow only today received documents from the Supreme Court. The three page decision, dated January 20, simply repeats the reasoning of the lower courts. The crux of their argument is that I violated the law by failing to apply for official "religious group" status. It was very important for the cause of religious freedom to establish the fact that people have their rights as individuals, and not just as members of approved groups. This was the heart of the case. The law provides the opportunity for people to form religious groups, but it does not say that people are required to form a group if they want to practice their faith together. The Supreme Court has now interpreted the law in a way that requires people to form an official group if they want to worship together in their own homes. This fundamentally changes the religious freedom environment in Russia for citizens and foreigners alike.
We still have a pending appeal in the Russian Constitutional Court. If there is a positive result in that court, it can be the basis for overturning the decision of the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court accepted my case for consideration on December 29. They do not have a time deadline, but we may expect a decision by springtime.
We can also file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in France. We would be certain to get a positive result there, but the process takes a few years. Russia is supposed to be bound by the decisions of the ECHR, but they ignore it when they want to. Even so, it is a pressure on them. If they ignore rulings of the ECHR, it can lead to specific sanctions. There are more human rights cases filed in the ECHR from Russia than from any other country.
I am now exploring the possibility of helping our people form an official group. We do not agree that this should be required, but if they want to continue together, this is now the only legal way for them to do so.
Even though they definitely have a desire to continue together as a group for Bible study, prayer, and fellowship, I can sense that there is a lot of fear. All of these people have memories of Soviet days. They know what can happen to believers and dissenters, especially those in contact with "foreign agents". They were there when the police came into our service last August. They were frightened that I was charged and convicted. The 40,000 ruble fine is a horrifying amount of money to them. To some of them, that would be three month's pay. They have seen three of my appeals denied, and they are not as confident as I am about receiving justice from the court system. They love me dearly and sincerely, but they are afraid. Please pray for them.
The church house, which has been such a blessing to us thus far, seems to be a bit of a stumbling block at this point. Part of the reason I fell foul of the law is that we were meeting in a residential home. I still feel that we were within our legal rights, but the courts have ruled otherwise. I am thinking about selling the house and using the money to purchase something like a store front. The house is dear to me personally, but the needs of the ministry are far more important, and if it would work better to have a store front, I would not object. I have looked at some properties for sale that would fit our needs for about the same price that the house is worth. I brought up the idea to our people in private conversations. Without exception, everybody was open to the idea. I asked them if the house and yard were dear places to them. I reminded them of the summer picnics and outdoor fellowship. They all said, yes, we found Christ there, and it was a lovely place, but to be honest, we would really rather come to services in a store front than in that house. A store front would be low maintenance, and eliminate most of the need for time and effort from them. Many of them were actually enthusiastic about the idea. I was surprised. I am going to put the house on the market, and if it will sell for enough money to buy another property, I will make the move.
I have listed our apartment with a new realtor, who seems to be more energetic than the other one was. The market usually picks up as springtime approaches, so pray that the Lord will send a buyer. Here is the realtor's ad on the internet with pictures of our apartment. The Russian ruble has gotten quite a bit stronger in the past few months, which is good for me. I must sell in rubles and convert to dollars before I send the money to America. A stronger ruble means I get more dollars for my rubles.
I am busy at the church house with a drywall project to improve the appearance of one of the rooms. My drywall skills have improved a lot in the last several months.
We are so grateful to the many people all over the world who are following this story and praying. God bless you!