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ECHR confronts Russian anti-evangelism law

The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) will give an evaluation to incidents of the restriction of evangelism in Russia which were brought about by the "Yarovaya Law" in the summer of last year. The ECHR accepted for review an appeal from an American citizen, the Baptist Donald Jay Ossewaarde, who on the basis of a declaration by a "concerned resident" was fined in Orel. A similar appeal to the ECHR was submitted by a volunteer cleric and citizen of India, Viktor Emanuel Mani, who was arrested in Naberezhnye Chelny and later deported and separated from his family. Experts say that the amendments to the law primarily hit foreigners.

The ECHR communicated (accepted for review) the appeal of the American citizen Donald Jay Ossewaarde, who lives with his wife in Orel. As Baptist Christians they assembled believers in their home for reading the Bible. On 14 August 2016, during such a meeting, police officers arrived at Mr. Ossewaarde's home. They explained to the Baptist that a "concerned resident"-the vice-chairman of the provincial government for security matters-had written a statement indicating that "foreign adherents of a religious cult" has pasted excerpts of Scripture to a bulletin board of the building. The American was accused of "missionary activity with violation of the requirements of legislation on freedom of conscience" (point 5 of article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law). For foreigners, the fine on this article is from 30 thousand to 50 thousand rubles "with or without administrative deportation beyond the borders of the RF." The court sentenced the Baptist to a fine of 40 thousand rubles.

The ECHR sent questions to Russian authorities asking "was the transfer to the police station and detention there compatible with requirements of legislation of the RF and article 5 of the Convention ("Right to freedom and personal inviolability"). The ECHR also asked "whether there occurred a violation of article 9 and article 11 of the Convention ('Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion' and 'Freedom of assembly and association') in connection with prosecution of the declarer for organization of meetings for reading the Bible." In addition, Strasbourg called attention to the fact that the Code of Administrative Violations of Law has different penalties for Russian and foreign missionaries (the fine is higher for the latter). The Russian side is supposed to respond no later than 30 October, the Ministry of Justice told Kommersant. The staff of the Russian commissioner at the ECHR, Mikhail Galperin, began to work out the "legal position of the Russian side, taking into account the opinion of the competent bodies of state authority and conclusions of national judicial instances."

Kommersant has learned that a similar appeal also was submitted by a citizen of India, Viktor Emmanuel Mani. "He is a cleric on a volunteer basis in the 'Love of God' Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Naberezhnye Chelny which is a member of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists" an attorney of the international rights advocacy group "Agora," Damir Gainutdinov, told Kommersant. Mr. Mani lived in Russia from 2001. Late last year a new visitor began attending his services. On 4 December 4 he made a donation, approached an employee of the church, and bought literature. Then the visitor send a declaration to the prosecutor's office indicating that the clergyman suggested that he call friends to the church and gave him two brochures and a book; that is, he engaged in missionary activity. "At the trial the defendant explained that he personally did not converse with the visitor and did not give him books," Mr. Gainutdinov says. The Naberezhnye Chelny city court issued a decision for a fine of 30,000 rubles and deportation. The latter was an "extreme penalty," the attorney says, pointing out that Mr. Mani is married to a Russian citizen and they have a daughter who is about a year old. Thereby there was a violation of article 8 of the Convention, the right to private life.

We recall that the article of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law regarding restriction of missionary activity appeared in June 2016, when the State Duma adopted anti-terrorism amendments by Deputy Irina Yarovaya. The amendments, as Kommersant reported, were publicly criticized by religious organizations, including also representatives of traditional confessions. An expert group of the Council on Human Rights under the Russian president also pointed out that the new rules "create unjustified and extreme restrictions for exercising freedom of consciences by believers of all religions and religious movements," and "arbitrarily hold administratively accountable persons who clearly have not committed socially dangerous actions."

The director of the Center for Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, commenting on the appeals to the ECHR says that each instance of the application of the "Yarovaya Law" is a debasement of a specific confession since "some are able to preach and others are not." "Foreigners are fined, in the first place, considering that they have the fewest rights to confession of their religion in Russia. At the same time, police and investigators prefer not to distinguish worship services and evangelism, although such a distinction exists in the law," Mr. Lunkin told Kommersant.

"The main absurdity of the law is the actual inclusion of the concept of 'missionary activity' within terrorist or extremist activity," the chancellor of the Russian Associated Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals), Konstantin Bendas, told Kommersant. "Foreigners are forced to participate in worship services and talk about religion in fear of deportation and large fines," Mr. Bendas says. "Russian missionaries labor in Myanmar, Laos, India, and another 100 countries. They have their own legislative peculiarities, but there is not such stupidity anywhere."


(c) 2017 HRWF

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