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Russian Government Seeks to Squelch Churches

Credit: Ivan Sekretarev via APThe Russian government cracked down on extremism and, in turn, threatened religious expression in their latest move. The Duma (their parliament, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives) passed a series of strict anti-terror laws that require phone and Internet providers to store all communications records for six months— they also outlaw any Christian missionary activity.

The proposed legislation has been termed the "Yarovaya law" after United Russia lawmaker Irina Yarovaya. She crafted the bill in response to the October bombing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt that killed 224. Opposition and security experts call it some of the most repressive legislation since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The loaded, Orwellian bill empowers a Putin administration to keep watch over those on Russian soil. Here in the US, Apple successfully kept the FBI from forcing it to build a backdoor into its software, but that is not the case in Russia. They would require tech companies to make cryptographic backdoors mandatory in all messaging applications. The bill also revives a Soviet standard that places criminal liability on individuals who fail to report to officials someone who is planning to or committed a crime – including a priest who listens to confession.

Regarding religion, the "Yarovaya law" bans proselytizing, preaching, or disseminating religious materials outside of specially designated places. You can talk about God in your house, as long as there are no unbelievers present. As Christianity Today notes, you will not be able to invite someone to church with an email. This radically relegates Christianity to government-approved buildings at government-designated times. If you break the law, there is a fine of up to $780 for an individual and $15,500 for an organization. Foreign visitors who violate the law face deportation.

A reading of the bill appears to target religious groups outside the government endorsed Russian Orthodox church. David Aikman, history professor and foreign affairs expert, told Christianity Today, "The Russian Orthodox church is part of a bulwark of Russian nationalism stirred up by Vladimir Putin. . . Everything that undermines that action is a real threat, whether that's evangelical Protestant missionaries or anything else."

Holistically, the bill seeks to target extremists and restore order in these tumultuous times. If you failed to report a crime, you could face up to a year in prison. Children as young as fourteen could be charged. And officials could ban individuals from leaving the country over what they term "extremist actions," such as a Facebook post.

Putin's authoritarian maneuvers attempt to hide his declining state. In an attempt to appear strong in the name of the fight against extremism, the Russian government is showing its weaknesses by eliminating freedoms and becoming the very thing they seek to protect their people against. The strength of a leader is not found in power over people, but by empowering people.

While the United States cannot intervene into every problem in the world, it should speak out against the problems and identify them for what they are. In the beginnings of the great American experiment, our Founders sowed seeds of liberty, and we are now reaping a beautiful harvest of diversity. The power of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was not dispensed by the government, but by our Creator. Government is not the source of those rights and does not have the power to take away those rights, it simply protects those rights.

One of those rights is the freedom of religion. The free outworking of religion produces virtue in the public square, which is a positive good for the whole country. Religious liberty is not just for Christians; it is for all citizens. You are free to believe or not believe; this is not a question but an opportunity.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is known for his seminal work Crime and Punishment. Commenting on the human experience, as only a Russian novelist can do, he said: "Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid." May this bill not fall silently into an unhappy night.

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