Staunton, June 7 – Vladimir Putin has cultivated an image as the defender of Christianity and defends his anti-extremist legislation as a serious effort to combat Islamist terrorism, but in fact, the Kremlin leader is not interested in defending Protestant Christianity and is using the anti-extremist laws primarily against followers of that third largest religious group in Russia.
There are some three million Protestants in Russia today in more than 4,000 parishes. (Only the Russian Orthodox Church and the Muslims have more.) But instead of being protected, Anna Alekseyeva says, more than 100 Protestants have been convicted of extremism, vastly more than the number of Muslims who have suffered that fate (snob.ru/selected/entry/125448).
Invoking the Yarovaya packet of laws, Protestant pastors have expelled, believers have fired (sova-center.ru/religion/news/harassment/non_state_discrimination/2017/06/d37248/, speaking against alcoholism has been declared a form of extremism, and baptisms in basins have been the occasion for deportations, the Snob commentator says.
Indeed, it is clear, she says, that the Yarovaya package of laws is being directed “against Martin Luther” more than against Islamists. She recalls that in 1517, Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of a Wittenburg church. Irina Yarovaya has “only two theses”: missionary activity must not take place in residences and missionaries must be registered with the state.
She cites the words of Aleksey Teleus, an Evangelical Baptist pastor in Noyabrsk, who says that the Yarovaya law is supposed to be about fighting terrorists but adds that he is unaware of “a single case when it has been applied against terrorists.” Instead, it is being deployed first and foremost against Protestant Christians.
Dmitry Shatrov, senior pastor of the Pentecostal Good News Mission, agrees. “The law is being applied precisely against Protestants” by officials who read it in extremely expansive ways. But according to him, this latest repressive action isn’t discouraging Protestants but rather making them “more attentive and disciplined.”
“In any case,” he says, “no one will be able to stop that which is directed by Jesus Christ Himself. We tell people about faith in God and we will continue to do so. My grandparents were jailed for doing that.” And the current round of repression isn’t going to stop him from following in their footsteps as God requires.
Russian Protestants have never had an easy time of it, Alekseyeva points out. “At the end of the 19th century, Russian Baptists were deported en masse to the Trans-Caucasus and the Far East … During World War I, [their] position got a lot worse because their faith was considered German.” And in the 1930s, they were exiled, forced into emigration or imprisoned.
Given this history, many Russian Protestants view the current round of official repression as not all that serious. But nonetheless, what the Russian authorities are doing is at the very least a violation of the Russian Constitution and basic human rights and deserving of the broadest possible criticism.
Andrey Matyuzhov, a Kemerovo pastor who has been fined 40,000 rubles for missionary activity, says that the authorities today are going extremely far to repress the faithful. He and his wife help those with drug problems, including prostitutes, but when he sought to testify in court, the judge cut him off saying that “You are a pastor: any word from you is preaching!”
Russian officials want to frighten Protestants, he says, but they are not succeeding. If Stalin and Khrushchev couldn’t stamp out Protestants, neither can Putin. Once again, Matyuzhov says, Protestants will “simply go underground,” continue their religious activities, and carry out the will of the Lord – although fewer foreign missionaries will be able to come.
Sergey Ryakhovsky, president of the Russian United Union of Evangelical Christians, says that he has the sense that Russian officials confuse protesters with Protestants. “We are not protesting: we are Protestants by faith … the ignorance of regional law enforcement personnel and bureaucrats is beyond belief.”