In the fight to preserve religious freedom in Russia, Christians find themselves caught between the cross and the constitution. The law passed by the Duma and signed by President Boris Yeltsin last month will require most Christian groups who have worked in the country to re-register with the government and face new restrictions on their activities. But failure to enforce the letter of the law, a scenario floated by spokesmen for Mr. Yeltsin and the Russian Orthodox Church, is a strike against the very rule of law. That's a concept Christian-based American groups like Law and Liberty Trust, the Rutherford Institute, and the Krieble Institute-among others-have been trying to engraft into Russian governance ever since the fall of the Soviet system.
No one is arguing for enforcement of the law. Overturning it without sacrificing what jurisprudence has been gained, however, may take more stamina than even Catherine the Great possessed. With rising crime, ultra-nationalism, and resurgent communism testing the bounds of democracy, the battle for religious access could prove fundamental.
"We have a huge stake in trying to keep Russia from imploding or moving back to a tyrannical direction," said Lauren Homer of Law and Liberty Trust. "Anything is possible in Russia right now."
The "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations" restricts the activity of religious groups that have been in Russia for fewer than 15 years. By going back to the Soviet era under Leonid Brezhnev, the cut-off date means nearly all recent missionary activity will come under strict monitoring and registration requirements. It was signed by Mr. Yeltsin Sept. 27 after near-unanimous passage in the State Duma and the Federation Council.
Somewhere between the restrictive new rules and the rule of law is a vast gray space left for interpretation. "The law leaves a huge amount of room for arbitrary behavior," said Ms. Homer. Mark Elliott, head of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies at Wheaton College, spoke to WORLD while traveling in Russia to meet with church leaders, mission agencies, and legal experts. "The major question is, What is enforcement going to look like?" he said.
In many localities, officials are not waiting for federal regulations in order to carry out the new requirements. Lutherans in Touim, Khakassia, a region of southern Siberia, received a letter canceling their registration from regional authorities the day Mr. Yeltsin signed the new law, even though the law did not go into effect until Oct. 1. A local prosecutor cited the law in filing suit against the group, Evangelical Lutheran Mission Khakassia, to close its parish, even though under the new law he should not be able to do so until Dec. 1999. The church has received assistance from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but it is run entirely by Russians.
"Those in power are a law unto themselves in the national republics," Pastor Vsevolod Lytkin told Keston News Service.
At Noginsk, 30 miles outside Moscow, police broke into a Ukrainian Orthodox Church to harrass its priests just after passage of the new law. One report said the priests were beaten. That church had broken away from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, a key force behind passage of the law.
The new restrictions did not arise overnight. Before passage, 13 regional governments had already made laws restricting religious freedom. Like the law Mr. Yeltsin signed, they were pushed by ultra-nationalists and communists threatened by Western cultural influence. They combined forces with the Orthodox hierarchy, worried by the domination of outsider churches.
One of the church's most senior officials, Metropolitan Kirill, complained to a recent World Council of Churches gathering that missionaries arriving in Russia had a combined budget of $150 million a year, which he said was five times the budget of the Russian Orthodox Church.
"They can buy everything they want. They can buy journalists who disinform the world public opinion, buy television time, and buy property. This law attempts to protect society from this invasion from abroad," he said.
Before passage of the law, public service announcements on state-run television portrayed Hare Krishnas against a toll of bells and somber music, cut by mothers crying over losing their sons to foreign cults. The PR campaign lumped cults in with legitimate missionary activity, and some Christians worry about forming an untenable alliance in the heat of the battle. One spoke of a "worst fear" that Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia would be the first to mount a court challenge to the law.
The law could be challenged in court either by one branch of the government, or by one or more Russian religious organizations. Christian legal experts met in Moscow last week and agreed that contradictions in the law's wording make taking the law to court all but certain. Already 60 deputies have signed onto a petition, making a challenge from the State Duma a strong possibility. Whether the courts would defy Mr. Yeltsin is another question.
Disenfranchised church groups, in the meantime, are anticipating the rebirth of Soviet-style bureaucracy, in the form of the Council of Religious Affairs. According to Wheaton's Mr. Elliott, "In some cases, those with jobs monitoring religious activity under the Soviet system never lost them. They kept them, just without using the claws. If this law is to be enforced, there will have to be an enormous bureaucracy."
They are also looking for ways under the new law to re-register. Many hope to affiliate with the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (UECB), the only Protestant denomination that appears to meet the law's 15-year rule. Already this group covers missionaries serving with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board and the work of the Chicago-based Slavic Gospel Association.
Many are ready to concede that the set-backs are the birth-pangs of a stronger church. Russian lawyers and church leaders must be the ones to file registration and other documents under the law. Western missionaries, once their megaphone, can perhaps now do a little Monday quarterbacking: What did they do to deserve this?
"There are too many instances of missionary activity without sufficient orientation," said Mr. Elliott. "I have grieved over the lack of cultural sensitivity and orientation of some groups. On the other hand, they could have done everything right, and it would not change this. The Orthodox Church is as troubled by effective evangelism efforts as they are by those that are culturally clueless."
Pressure for the Orthodox Church goes beyond the nascent Christian community. Ever since the Soviet Union's breakup, portions of Russian Orthodoxy have been breaking away too. Orthodox churches in Estonia chose to affiliate with the Eastern Orthodox church; others, like the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Noginsk, chose to align themselves with churches away from the Moscow orbit.
"The Orthodox Church is looking for a territorial monopoly when it comes to religion," said Peter Kuzmic, a Croatian seminary dean who is visiting professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary.
Church leaders in Moscow have a fragile political alliance with the Duma's ruling communists and ultra-nationalists. It could fall apart in the face of criticism from both the intelligentsia and the press, or from calls for greater restrictions on religious activity by political extremists.
One leading evangelical leader in Moscow, who would not be named for fear of reprisal, said, "Orthodoxy may find this law sets the beginning of the end of their church's authority in Russia."