Christian and other legal experts cautiously welcomed a ruling which they hope may reduce prosecutions against Christians for “missionary activity” in Russia.
Baptist pastor Sergei Stepanov appealed to Russia’s Constitutional Court after he was convicted for posting an invitation to an Easter service at another church on his VKontakte social network page. In his appeal, Pastor Stepanov said language used to describe “missionary activity” in the country’s Religion Law amendments was too vague.
The Constitutional Court refused to consider the pastor’s appeal. But instead judges issued guidance stating that “missionary activity” could only be described as such when it involved disseminating information “among persons who are not participants (members, followers).”
Since 2016, when Russia introduced the Religion Law amendments, many Christians have been prosecuted for “missionary activity” including speeches, posting on social media, inviting people to church, or even publicising church events. Russian Christians and people of other faiths were fined, and foreign nationals were fined and deported.
Evangelical Christians in Russia face tight state controls which make it very hard for them to share their faith. Although restrictions on "missionary activity" remain in place, it is hoped this guidance may reduce prosecutions in the future.
Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin told the human rights organisation Forum 18: “Thanks to this definition, we hope to change radically the approach of the courts to missionary work.”
Between July 2016 and November 2017, there were 202 prosecutions under the amendments, 53% of them against Protestant Christians.