by Diana Chandler
ORYOL, Russia (BP) — Missionaries Donald and Ruth Ossewaarde always suspected their Gospel ministry in Oryol, Russia, wouldn’t last when they began in 2002, he told Baptist Press by telephone from his home in the central Russian town of 320,000.
But he had not expected to be among the first people arrested under Russia’s new law prohibiting organizations from evangelizing outside church walls and without a government permit.
Two weeks after police interrupted Ossewaarde’s Sunday morning Bible study in his home with 15 students, arrested him and fined him 40,000 rubles, about $600, the Independent Baptist missionary said he will leave the country amid veiled threats against his life, even though he has appealed the charges against him.
“I really think that the political situation in Russia has reached a point where they are going to, one way or the other, they’re going to get rid of me,” he told BP. “So I really decided to end my operations here. It’s sad because there are people here that really enjoy what we do. It’s a big part of their life.”
Ossewaarde has conducted street evangelism, distributed printed materials and held weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings in his home. He has ended those outreaches, is awaiting a court date for his appeal, is trying to sell his apartment and house, and is making plans to return to the U.S.
“I’m very sad,” he said. “This is a dream that I’ve been living for 22 years since the first time I visited in 1994. It took a year or two for me to realize God was calling me to come over permanently, because I had just been making visits. In 1996 I realized this was my calling.”
As an Independent Baptist, he travelled the U.S. for several years to raise financial support among churches for the mission before moving to Ukraine in 1999 and Oryol, Russia, three years later.
“This has been my life, what I’ve lived for,” he said. “I guess we expected from the beginning that this wasn’t going to last. I guess we were surprised that it lasted as long as it did. But now it just seems like the window and the door of opportunity is finally closing.”
He has referred his Bible study participants and others to the Russian Baptist Church.
“But still,” he said of the Christians, “they’re just devastated.”
Ossewaarde was arrested Aug. 14 and forced to attend a hearing in the city’s Railway District Court that same day, with the representation of a court-appointed attorney who advised him to accept the verdict, pay the fine and leave the city, because anything might happen to him and his family, according to a press release on Ossewaarde’s website.
His wife has already returned to Illinois, where their home congregation Faith (Independent) Baptist Church is located in Bourbonnais.
“I didn’t feel that she was safe [here] after … I had a thinly veiled threat against myself and my wife so I just figured it was time for her to go home,” he said. “I want to complete the appeal process. If I can successfully challenge this it will make it easier on other missionaries that would probably otherwise be prosecuted.”
Ossewaarde was charged under Article 5.26, Part 5 of the new religion law for holding religious services in his home, advertising services on bulletin boards in nearby neighborhoods, and failing to give authorities written notification when he began his religious activities. He has hired private attorneys.
“What we have in our favor … is the way they wrote the law is very ineffective in accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish,” Ossewaarde said, clarifying that the law passed July 20 limits missionary activity by religious organizations in particular, and he operates independently of any group. “They wanted to make all missionary activity illegal. The law as written doesn’t apply to me, and that’s why I believe that we will win this appeal. But long term, obviously they can write another law that says missionary activity is just plain outlawed. I certainly consider myself a missionary.”
Five others had been arrested under the law as of Aug. 22, Forum 18 reported, including another Baptist who was fined 5,000 rubles; a Hare Krishna, acquitted; a Protestant, fined 50,000 rubles; a Pentecostal, who was to appear in court Aug. 29, and a Seventh-day Adventist, who was awaiting a trial date.
Ossewaarde had enjoyed religious freedom before the new law, although the Russian Orthodox Church held a religious monopoly of sorts.
“All other religious movements are looked at as foreign and suspicious and I’ve heard people say to each other that if you go to a foreign religion meeting that you’re not patriotic,” he said. “Anybody other than an Orthodox Christian is referred to as a sectarian or cultist. Up until recently, we had complete freedom to be able to distribute literature, talk to people on the street. We were even able to put literature in mail boxes.”
Ossewaarde first evangelized in Russia during a 1994 visit there after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The first time I came over with a group of evangelists and pastors, we had two weeks of meetings and we just had thousands of people that responded to the Gospel invitations and it was very exciting back in those days,” he said. “We just thought there was going to be a great revival. It was going to sweep across Russia. And Russia and America were going to become great friends and it was just going to be a wonderful thing. And that great promise that we all hoped for just didn’t come to pass.”
Russia is now stressed economically, and political leaders blame America for the decline, Ossewaarde said.
“It’s a constant stream every day of anti-American and anti-foreign propaganda,” he said. “For them to go after a foreigner like me is good propaganda.”
by David Roach.
Passed by both houses of Russia’s parliament within the past week and awaiting President Vladimir Putin’s signature, the bill has been called “a step toward an Iron Curtain” by an opposition leader, the Los Angeles Times reported.
According to Christianity Today, the measure would require that citizens who wish to share their faith obtain government permits and only do evangelism in church buildings and at other religious sites. Online evangelism and witnessing in a private residence both would be restricted.
Foreign visitors who violate the law could face deportation, CT reported. Individual Russian violators could face fines of up to U.S. $780, with groups fined up to $15,500.
The IMB asked believers to pray “that the Lord turns the heart of the president” to reject the measure.
“IMB supports freedom of religion for all people, and this certainly includes our brothers and sisters in Christ who live and worship in Russia,” IMB spokesperson Julie McGowan told Baptist Press in written comments. “In response to the laws proposed in Russia this week, we encourage believers around the world to pray that senior national leadership will intervene so Russian believers will be spared these limitations on an individual’s opportunity to express and share their personal faith.
“To paraphrase Proverbs 21:1,” McGowan said, “President Vladimir Putin’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever he will. We pray in this case that the Lord turns the heart of the president to reject the legal precedent that will hinder the advance of the Gospel and opportunities for Christian discipleship and fellowship in Russia.”
The bill is part of a package of anti-terrorism legislation dubbed the “Yarovaya” law after its lead author Irina Yarovaya and has drawn criticism for encroaching on other civil liberties as well, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported.
According to The Times, the measure would stiffen punishments for acts deemed terrorism or “mass unrest” and for failing to report such crimes. “Justification” of acts deemed “extremism,” including online posts, could result in prison terms of up to seven years.
Sasse, R-Neb., took to the Senate floor Wednesday (June 29) to oppose the Russian bill — especially its restrictions on religious liberty.
“The Russian law would be an affront to free people everywhere, at home and abroad, who believe that rights of conscience — the rights to free speech and to freedom of religion — are pre-political,” Sasse said. “These freedoms do not ebb and flow with history. They do not rise and fall with the political fortunes of a despot. Governments do not give us these rights, and governments cannot take them away. These rights of speech and religion and assembly belong to every man, woman and child because all of us are image-bearers of our Creator.”
Lloyd Harsch, a New Orleans Seminary church history professor of German-Russian descent, told BP the measure harkens back to Soviet-era suppression of religious belief.
“Since the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has steadily constricted its initial openness to evangelical Christianity,” Harsch, professor of church history and Baptist studies, said in written comments. “The proposed laws build upon previous anti-terrorism laws passed in 2002 and 2007 and are another attempt by Vladimir Putin to solidify his grip on power [and] silence his critics, under the guise of promoting public safety and combating terrorism. Anything that challenges his authority can be branded as terrorist activity.”
The law would heavily favor the Russian Orthodox Church and continue to leave Russia’s evangelical minority at a disadvantage, Harsch said.
“These laws reveal the continuing aftereffects of communism, which viewed all religion as the same,” Harsch said. “If Muslims are bombing train stations, then restrict the religious activities of Buddhists and Christians [because] all religion [supposedly] is the same. The proposed restrictions are justified as necessary to counter terrorism and preserve peace, but cast a much wider net to include government critics of all kinds and any religious activity outside the Russian Orthodox Church.”
The bill also has drawn criticism from Muslim, Jewish and Russian Orthodox organizations, The Guardian reported. Protestants in Russia, CT said, have called for prayer and protest.