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March 16, 2017 - They that wait upon the Lord...
It has been a month since my last update. I am waiting patiently. I am waiting for somebody to buy our apartment. I am waiting for the Constitutional court to make a decision on our case. I have plenty of things to keep me busy as I wait, but the time is beginning to drag. I am praying for grace and patience, and trusting the Lord to take care of things in His own time.
My lawyers suggested that our people fill out the paperwork to form a legal religious group. I discussed the idea with our key people, and they don't like it. They are really angry that the Supreme Court has ruled against me. They do not like the idea of bowing to the government to ask permission to pray to their God and read His word. They don't want to put their names on a list or notify anybody about the practice of their faith. They prefer to wait for the decision of the Constitutional Court, which could overturn all of the previous court decisions. I am concerned about the long period of time that we have not been meeting together, but if they are not willing to form a group, I cannot form it without them.
A few internet news sources reported that I had already left the country. I contacted them and insisted that they correct their information. They granted me an interview, most of which was published. There were four reporters working in the news office during the interview, and they were listening carefully as they worked on their own stories. I made sure to give a clear presentation of the Gospel as I answered the questions, which was the best witnessing opportunity I have had here for a long time. Here is my translation of the published interview. (I told the reporter that my wife and I have four children and that we have four grandchildren, with a fifth grandchild on the way. The first published version of the article said, "Donald and his wife have four children, and they are expecting a fifth one." I made sure to get that corrected right away!)
The first missionary prosecuted by "Yarovaya" law plans to leave Russia
16 February 2017
by Denis Wolin, Oryol News
(picture) Donald Jay Ossewaarde: "Something has changed in this country ..."
American Baptist missionary Donald Jay Ossewaarde - the first who fell under the sanctions of the law of the "Yarovaya Package", after 14 years living in Russia, announced his intention to return to the US. A few days ago, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the court's decision in Oryol, where the preacher lives. The American had to pay a fine of 40 thousand rubles, and he is denied the right to missionary activity. He is found guilty of having services without notifying the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, of "the beginning of the activities of the religious group." Our correspondent spoke with Donald and found out what to expect from his namesake Trump, how Russia has changed, and why he did not change his attitude towards Putin.
- Donald, tell us about yourself. Where are you from?
- I was born in the USA, in Michigan, in the north, and raised in a Baptist family. As a teenager, I felt a calling to become a preacher. After high school, I went to Bible college, took courses to become a preacher and a pastor. For a few years, I served as an assistant pastor and then became what we call an "evangelist" - a traveling preacher. I traveled a little around America, preaching in various churches. In America, of course, we have much freedom in this respect. Sometimes it comes to absurd extremes. A man can stand up and say: "I am Jesus Christ, I am founding my own religion." Yes, we may laugh at him, but no one will oppress him. There are different groups - Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, but if everyone has the right - that's good. After all, if they have their rights, then I will have my rights.
- How did you come to be in Eastern Europe?
- It even amazes me. I did not expect to ever find myself here. When I was an evangelist, in 1994, I had the opportunity to travel to Belarus. Imagine, just a few years after the Soviet Union fell, it became legal to bring the Bible, to preach, to tell people about God. And it was very interesting, because when I grew up, I always heard that there, in Eastern Europe, was "the evil empire" and "communists". It was impossible to openly stand on the street, handing out Bibles, and preaching. And then, when it all became possible, it was very interesting for me, once in a lifetime to go to the former Soviet Union and to preach about Jesus. In Minsk, I spent two weeks. People were very happy to accept the Word of God. But I was convinced that I would never want to return. I was wrong - a year later I was back there. And again I preached in Belarus for two weeks. After that, I felt that it was now necessary for missionaries to come here. I began to pray for God to send missionaries to the former USSR.
- How did you overcome the language barrier?
- Initially, I could only say "thank you" and "goodbye", that is, my vocabulary was quite limited. Basically I preached in English. [with an interpreter]
- When did you decide to take the path of missionary work in our country?
- This idea I had in 1996. I thought, "Maybe I should be the missionary?". I consulted with my pastor and my family, and finally decided that my calling was to serve in Russia. Then I sold my house and property in the United States. The move took about one and a half years. My family and I first lived in Kiev. I had to learn Russian, and there was a Linguistic University there.
- Why did you choose Oryol?
- I had a big map of Russia, and every day I would open it and pray about where in this vast country I should preach. At the same time, as I said, I was in the university. There I studied for two years, not only Russian, but also geography, history and Russian literature. I studied the writings of Pushkin, Lermontov, and one day I encountered the works of Ivan Turgenev. I learned that he had come from the small town of Oryol. The teacher even pointed out where it is on the map. I then felt that this is the heart of Russia, and that there would be many unbelievers in central Russia who might be interested to know about the simple faith of the Bible. After that, every day I continued to pray, looking over the map, and my thoughts were drawn as a magnet to Oryol. I thought maybe, God is showing me the place of my future ministry. And I decided - it is necessary to go there and see how people live. The first time was in the year 2000. I saw a quiet beautiful city. This is not entirely a provincial place, and a person can live there. So two years later, I moved to Oryol, and finally bought an apartment here. At first, our entire family was here. I have a wife and four children. By the way, my wife found it very difficult to learn the Russian language. For several years the family lived with me. In 2005, the two older children decided to return to America, and three years later, the two younger ones.
- You came to Oryol, not really knowing about Russia. What did you do?
- I started to act as an evangelist. The whole family began to distribute Bibles and pamphlets on the street. Most people were more or less pleasant to us, but they showed little interest. Basically, they said "Thank you, I do not need it, we have our own faith." I did not argue with them. After some time, people began to become interested. I invited them to our home for tea. There we read the Bible together, I shared my knowledge, there was an interesting dialogue. Some of them have accepted the Baptist faith. Then I bought a private home and began putting up notices inviting everyone to come. Several hundred people have come through our house. A few of became regulars. The core of our group is about 12-15 people.
- The government did not interfere?
- No, we had complete freedom.
- What has surprised you most about living in Russia?
- When I started talking to people in their own language, I was surprised that most have told me, "Yes, I believe in God." I asked myself, "How can this be, this is a country where atheism ruled for decades?" And, of course, I was very surprised to find out that it is not that way. I experienced almost no culture shock. I immediately felt at home in Russia.
- You said that you have bought an apartment in Oryol and the house. Where did you get the money?
- In America, it very easy to make money, and I have enough money to live. As I said, I sold all my property before the move. You know, in the US the financial situation is not so tight. There's a lot of money to be found.
- How long did you enjoy a quiet life before law enforcement became interested in you?
- For 14 years we lived, you might say, successfully and happily. And then in 2016 the so-called "Yarovaya law" was adopted, which affected missionary activity. I read the media reports and was very concerned. It seemed that it was going to be impossible to engage in missionary activity in this country. But when I read the text of the law, I realized, though I'm not a lawyer, that missionary activity was defined as an activity of a religious association. That is, the official association must file a notification with the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation about the beginning of its activities. I thought that this does not apply to me - I was not acting as a representative of any organization. I am a private person, an independent preacher. I share my personal faith with people. I consulted with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, which deals with the protection of religious rights. Those lawyers told me that I, as an individual, should not be affected by this law. They warned me that perhaps the local authorities would want to test the Yarovaya amendments on me. And, as it turns out, that's what happened. On Sunday morning, August 14, 2016, three policemen came into our service. They behaved politely, and waited for the end of the meeting, then they asked me to go with them to the station and wrote charges against me. By the way, they lied to me. Initially I was told that no complaints had been filed against me. But when I walked into the station and they closed the door, one of the officers said, "Actually, not everything is as we have told you. There is a complaint against you." Interestingly, the same day I was taken to the district court, which found me guilty, and sentenced me to pay a fine of 40 thousand rubles.
- Then you tried to appeal to the regional court and then the Supreme court, but your complaints were dismissed. Now what?
- We still have a pending appeal in the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. Of course, I hope they will decide that the Yarovaya law is unconstitutional and infringes upon the religious rights of citizens. If such a decision is not made, then I would not rule out an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
- Let's go back to the decision of the local and Supreme Courts. How do you assess them?
- It is difficult for me to say that I am wrong. But, I need to say that the court's decision should be respected. Indeed, any orderly country must have laws and court procedures, and they must be honored. Of course, the Constitution guarantees each individual the right to have faith and to share it, but the Supreme Court has made a decision that says that people can enjoy their religious rights only in a group with other people. If that's how the law is written, and the court has decided that the law should be interpreted in that way, then I am sure that the Constitutional Court should decide otherwise. The main question here is simple, yet very important: does a person have religious rights as an individual? Or does he have those rights only as part of a group? When I read the Constitution, it is clear to me that every individual person has those rights. The Yarovaya law, as we see, says otherwise. [as interpreted by the Supreme court]
- All the same, as long as you don't have a decision from the Constitutional Court about your appeal, you have effectively lost your right to preach. What does it mean to you personally?
- Since the charges were filed against me, we have not been having meetings with our friends. Those who used to come tell me that Sunday is now an empty and sad time, because they are accustomed to having fellowship with each other, spending time studying the Bible, listening to sermons. They have lost something that is very valuable to them. But I tell them that we, as law-abiding citizens, have to be patient, and, at the same time, try to defend our rights, of course, in the right way, observing the laws.
- I am told that you're going to leave.
- Yes, I'm going back to the United States. I served in Russia for 14 years and was ready to do it for the rest of my life. But something has changed in this country. Even if we get a positive decision from the Constitutional Court, I still plan to leave as soon as I can sell my property here in Oryol. But it will be better for the people of Russia if the court will make the right decision. Then they can enjoy their constitutional rights. And maybe this is part of my calling. Why have I served here? Most importantly, that people could know about Jesus. And I can say that in some sense I have fulfilled that mission. If my court case can be for someone's benefit, I'll be happy. Part of my heart will always be here.
- 14 years you have lived in Russia. How has the country changed, in which you began to preach, and from which you now feel the need to leave?
- If we look at the standard of living, it has become much higher. If we talk about the level of religious freedom, then, except for the "Yarovaya law", I cannot really find anything negative to say. I believe that President Putin is a very talented and effective administrator.
- If that is so, why did Putin accept the amendments of the "Yarovaya Package", which, in the opinion of several experts, really hit civil rights and liberties? Take, for example, your case.
- In my opinion, the "Yarovaya law" was adopted as an anti-terrorism action. It is a barrier against terrorism. I think Putin signed it just for that reason.
- How do you explain Putin's criticism on the part of the Western community?
- The international situation today is very complex. I do not get involved in political issues. I think that everyone should be a patriot, and have respect for the state and its leaders. Sometimes I am questioned. What, for example, do I think about Russia's annexation of Crimea? And I have my own opinion on this issue. I have been in Crimea many times. It is a beautiful place, I have friends there. I feel sorry for the people there who are suffering. This is a very difficult political situation. Even my friends are finding it difficult to live there.
- You will be going back home. Do you follow the life of modern America? The presidential elections are over, and the White House is now headed by your namesake Donald Trump, whom Russian politicians seem to have accepted as one of their own.
- From the point of view of a believer, I have to say that Trump, to put it mildly, is not a very holy man. He has had quite a sinful lifestyle. But from a policy perspective, as an American, and as a patriot of my country, for the most part, I agree with him. I have not supported the policies of Barack Obama. I always voted against him and his party. Trump is a more conservative person, like myself. I hope that there will be a peaceful sky over our countries. And I see that the Russians are willing to give him a chance to become a friend.
-----(end of article)-----
Back in October, I reported that an Irish Senator in the Parliament of the Council of Europe submitted a formal question to the Russian delegation about my case. He wanted them to explain why they had violated my religious rights, using an anti-terrorism law to prosecute a peaceful American missionary. The Russians were obligated to provide a written response to the question. They gave their reply at the end of February. Their answer says, "We did not prosecute him under the terrorism law. He violated the law on freedom of conscience. Mr. Ossewaarde enjoys freedom of religion in our country." This is ridiculous, of course. The terrorism law specifically amended the freedom of conscience law, and I was prosecuted under those specific amendments. I have not been able to freely practice my faith here since August 14, 2016.
My lawyers are preparing an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This will not provide any short term relief to our situation, but all the same it will put international pressure on Russia. A decision from this court could take several years. Decisions of the ECHR are supposed to be binding on Russia, but they have ignored some of these decisions in the past.
A family group looked at my apartment in mid-February. They really liked it, but I have not heard anything from them since then. I suppose they just don't have enough money to buy. I am confident and trusting God to send a buyer at the right time, but it is hard not to be a little anxious. It would be much better to complete the sale and have the money in the bank before I return to America, but I cannot wait forever. If the apartment does not sell by the end of April, I am planning to go back to America and let someone else here handle the sale.
I still have enough fix-up projects at the apartment and the church house to keep me busy. I built a new sheetrock wall at the church, which involved moving some of the radiator pipes. It is almost ready to paint.
--I ripped off the old plaster and wood lath down to the "log cabin" walls, then put up steel studs--
--these radiator pipes had to be removed to make room for the new wall--
--most of the new drywall in place; new radiator pipes down by the floor--
In other news:
- I did a Skype chat with one of our supporting churches during their Sunday morning service. That was fun!
- I continue to sort through all the "stuff" we have accumulated in 17 years on the field. I cannot possibly take it all back to America, so I have been shipping a lot of things to other missionaries through the mail.
- I will go to Israel for seven days next week to help my old friend, Pastor Jim Vineyard, with a project to be a blessing to Israeli communities and military bases. I do not need any funds for what I will be doing for him, but he is about $10,000 short of what he needs for the project. If you would like to help, donations can be sent to: Yedidim of Israel, 5517 NW 23rd Street, Oklahoma City, OK, 73127, ATTN: Mrs. Rachel Ruiz.
- This news article says that using an anti terrorism law against peaceful missionaries like me is like sending riot police to keep order in a kindergarten.
- Three Baptist Russian citizens in a village near Oryol were recently charged with illegal missionary activity, just as I was. Because they are Russians, the fine is much smaller. They were each fined 5000 rubles, about $85.
- President Trump has appointed Jon Huntsman to be the new ambassador to Russia, pending Senate confirmation. Huntsman, a Mormon, served as a missionary for two years in Taiwan. He has been Ambassador to Singapore and to China, and Governor of Utah. I wrote a letter to Mr. Huntsman today, asking him to take a serious look at religious freedom issues if he is confirmed as Ambassador. I also wrote to the White House asking President Trump to instruct his new ambassador to press Putin on these issues.