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Candle lighting in Chechnya (AP/Photo by Musa Sadulayev)

Red Christmas

News of the Year | The Soviet Union collapsed nearly 20 years ago, but religious freedom remains elusive in many corners of the former regime

During the Christmas season 20 years ago, regimes and realms were making news that still resonate two decades later: The United States was at war with Iraq, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti, and computer experts were nearing the launch of a system that would become the World Wide Web.

For the Soviet Union, the moment was fraught with turmoil: The mammoth empire was on the verge of collapse. By the next Christmas (1991), the Soviet Union would disintegrate into 15 different countries, and the modern-day Cold War would end.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the Western world to Eastern Europe's doorstep, and found religious groups-including evangelicals-flooding into the atheistic regime. The door that officially had been shut to Christianity suddenly swung open.

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Twenty years later, the door is shutting again in many former Soviet territories. This year brought increased oppression against Christians and other religious minorities in countries coping with the rise of Islam. As Russia and former Soviet states battled militant Islam in the wake of terrorist attacks like the March subway bombing in Moscow, Christians found themselves ensnared in the tightening net.

Christians across the region said they encountered bureaucratic hassles: Local authorities denied visas to foreign workers and stalled registrations for hundreds of churches. In other countries, persecution wasn't a new development: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) kept Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on its list of countries of particular concern, citing egregious violations of religious freedom in the predominantly Muslim lands.

USCIRF also added Russia to its 2009 watch list, noting that the country established a new body in the Ministry of Justice with unprecedented powers to control religious groups.

Mark Elliott, founding editor of East-West Church and Ministry Report, reported that conditions for religious freedom in Russia and former Soviet republics are still better than they were during the communist period, but "compared to 10 years ago, it's much more difficult and restrictive."

Bob Provost, president of the Slavic Gospel Association, an Illinois-based group that serves indigenous churches in Russia and former Soviet republics, said religious oppression also remains intense in Georgia. Local Baptist pastors report that Orthodox Church leaders regularly denounce Baptists as cultists and harass local meetings of evangelicals.

Still, Provost says, indigenous pastors are more focused on their work than on their opposition. "No matter what is going on politically or economically, they never talk about it," he said. "When things around them are bad and growing worse, they're focused on the gospel."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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