In 2016, Russia passed the Yarovaya laws, which ban Russians from inviting outsiders to join their faith, even online or in their own homes, unless they have a government permit through a registered religious organization. Even with the permit, they can only evangelize in designated churches and religious sites. Data has now come out on Russia’s prosecutions of this act from 2018 and the data shows that Evangelicals have become the main target for this law. Of the 159 individuals and organizations prosecuted for demonstrating their faith in public, 89 were either Pentecostals or Baptists (56%), according to Forum 18, a news service covering religious freedom issues in Russia.
This has not slowed this calendar year. For example, in April, Russian authorities stopped a Baptist worship service and charged its 71-year-old pastor with illegal missionary activity because he did not have a permit from the government. In January, two Baptists were punished for merely discussing their faith at a public bus stop. Sergei Roshchin and Valery Turkin were charged for not having authorization from a religious group to conduct missionary activity, but they argued that they were merely sharing their personal beliefs. They tried to fight the fines in court, but lost their case and appeal because the judge ruled that they had invited others to a church service. Violators of the law can start with a 5,000 rubles fine for individuals or a 50,000 rubles fine for organizations. Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin told Forum 18 “Believers are afraid to carry the Word of God to the masses, because they fear fines. Law enforcement agencies assume that any church activity is missionary activity, which is certainly not true.”
While critics argue that the churches should simply follow the law, it is not that simple, as even following the law at times can lead to other violations. For example, last year a Baptist pastor in Perm region was found guilty for hanging a sign that read, “House of Prayer of the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists, worship service every Sunday from 10am”. The verdict against the church read, “The placement … suggests that [the defendant] carries out missionary activity aimed at disseminating information about the beliefs of [the church] among other persons who are not members,”
In April, authorities arrived in the middle of a Sunday worship service near Novorossiik while the choir was singing “Jesus is My Lighthouse” and two days later the church received a summons alleging illegal missionary activity. Yevgeny Kokora, an elder of the church, told Radio Free Europe that investigators have now demanded that they receive summaries of pastor Korniyenko’s sermons and attendance numbers for the church. US ambassador to Russia John Huntsman has referred to the state of religious freedom in Russia as “very difficult and very troubling” and Russia was placed on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom list for the first time in 2017, largely because of these new restrictions on evangelism. Russia has tried to argue that the number of violations has decreased from last year, but that is only because Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned from the country.
Evangelism is one of the hallmark beliefs within Christianity. Jesus himself set forth the call to evangelism and missions with the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, stating “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”