STRASBOURG – Religious minorities face an increasingly hostile environment in Russia. After the introduction of a so-called anti-terrorism law in 2016, minority faith groups have experienced a crackdown on their religious activities. On 7 March 2018, ADF International will file a third party brief arguing for the right to religious freedom to be properly respected in Russia. The state authorities have recently shut down the group’s administrative centre and 395 local congregations throughout the country and confiscated all their assets.
“Once a state starts oppressing unpopular convictions, there is no logical stopping point,” said Jennifer Lea, Legal Counsel for ADF International. Religious freedom is protected under the Russian constitution and international law. Russian authorities cannot simply close down faith groups they do not like. Church autonomy should be respected at all times. Now it is up to the European Court of Human Rights to show Russia the boundaries of state intervention when dealing with religious affairs.”
Attack on human rights: the Russian terror law
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the first group to fall victim to the new anti-terror law sanctioned by President Putin in July 2016. The stated purpose was to put an end to recruitment efforts by extremist groups. In reality, this law is being used to criminalize all “missionary activities” including “sharing one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbeliever with the aim of involving these individuals in the ‘structure’ of the religious association.” Transgressors suffer heavy penalties: up to six years in prison, hefty financial fines, as well as deportation for foreigners. The United Nations has underscored its concern: the law relies on the vague notion of “extremism” thereby rendering religious minorities extremely vulnerable.
Recently, Donald Ossewaarde, a US missionary from the Baptist church, experienced first-hand the effects of this law. After more than 20 years of service in Russia, police raided a prayer gathering in his home and dragged him to the police station for further interrogation. He was convicted of conducting illegal missionary activity. Mr. Ossewaarde and his wife left the country soon afterwards but have also filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights.
“The new terror law creates a climate of fear amongst people of all religions. The Russian government has introduced a piece of legislation that decidedly curbs religious freedom, a right protected by international law. The European Court of Human Rights should safeguard this fundamental right and ensure that no government criminalizes religious minorities,” said Lorcán Price, Legal Counsel for ADF International.
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