There was a heavy knock on the door.
It interrupted the typical Sunday gathering of Baptist friends and families who meet weekly in Vitaliy Bak’s house in Verkhnebakansky, Russia to pray, read the Bible, and worship together.
Vitaliy Bak, who is the leader of the small community, remembers what happened next:
“Uniformed men arrived,” he says. “They said we must quickly end our Sunday service — all must go out on the street and the house will be completely sealed.”
That was in April 2019. In July, authorities returned to seal off a large portion of the house in order to prevent future use.
Today in Russia, while freedom of religion is technically guaranteed by both the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, the practices of local authorities are often in stark contrast to federal and international law. For example, laws applicable where Vitaliy and his community live prohibit religious minorities from purchasing, or building and registering, a designated church building. That’s exactly why he bought this private residence:
“I bought it for myself and for my family in order for me to meet here with whomever I choose,” says Bak. “I have taken part in founding this group. We meet here with friends and relatives. Here, we pray together. Here, we gather together.”
“I love this place with my whole soul,” says Elena, Bak’s wife, as she bounces her child in her arms. “Here, we read, pray, and worship God together. This place is dear to my heart.”
But now, the authorities who sealed off the Baks’ residence are arguing zoning laws don’t allow the family to hold worship services in this residential house — ignoring the fact that this is the only legal way for a minority religious group to meet. If worshipping together in their home is forbidden, then there is nowhere for these Christians to legally worship. Bak originally fought this decision in Russian courts, where his constitutional rights were not recognized, but now, as a last resort, has filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
“For the first time, they [Russian authorities] are using zoning laws to prohibit religious practice in a certain building, in this case a residential building. However, according to the law, there is simply no other option,” explains Dr. Felix Boellmann, Legal Counsel for Europe at ADF International. ADF International is providing legal representation for Bak. “We are taking this case to the European Court of Human Rights because it deserves the attention of this level. It could be precedent-setting and of importance for many religious groups in Russia.”
Throughout the coming months, it is critical that the international community continues to monitor this case’s development. The decision regarding whether the Bak family may meet for worship with friends and family within their own house could have lasting ramifications for religious minorities throughout Russia and potentially across Europe. The freedom to practice one’s religion in community with others cannot be a symbolic right that is merely discussed at conferences and conventions.
“I dream that the group that we have will gather and feel comfortable and safe,” says Bak. “So that the security that the state guarantees — this guarantee exists, not on paper, but in fact. For this I pray and worry.”