by Willy Fautré (HRWF) — The case against a Protestant pastor deprived of his right to organize religious meetings in his home in Russia is pending at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The case was filed by ADF International and is under review of the Court.
Over the course of several years, a registered group of Evangelical Christian Baptists used to gather in a private house in Verkhnebakansky in Southern Russia. In September 2018, the local authorities filed a lawsuit against the former owner of the building asking the court to ban its use for religious purposes. The administration claimed that there were violations of fire safety and anti-terror provisions, that the building was registered as a residential house and could not be used as a church.
The claim was dismissed in first instance by the district court but the decision was overturned on appeal. According to the new decision, the use of the private building for religious purposes was banned.
In April 2019, the authorities broke into the house during a religious service and demanded its termination and an inspection of the building. Administrative proceedings were initiated against one of the assistant pastors, who was found guilty of conducting “illegal missionary activities”.
Representatives of the authorities came back on July 5, 2018, once more interrupting a Sunday service. They demanded that the congregation leave and, subsequently, sealed large parts of the house, including the room where Sunday services were held.
Pastor Vitaliy Bak with the help of his domestic attorney fought over four instances. Yet in October 2019, the forth instance confirmed the ban, leaving Vitaliy Bak no other option than to appeal to the ECtHR.
After exhaustion of domestic remedies, Vitaliy Bak asked ADF International to represent him before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. After completing a fact finding mission and site inspection in October 2019, ADF filed the case in Strasbourg on 4 December 2019. The Court has informed ADF that all the formal criteria had been fulfilled and the case is currently under review at the end of which the Court will determine whether or not to communicate the case to the Russian government.
About the legal situation of Vitaliy Bak’s congregation
The 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association (with amendments through 2016) serves as the main pillar of the religious legislation.
The law recognises four ‘traditional religions’ and stresses the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church for its historical contribution to the country’s spirituality and culture.
The law establishes several categories of religious entities: ‘Religious Groups’ (RGs), ‘Local Religious Organisations’ (LROs) and ‘Centralised Religious Organisations’ (CROs).
De facto religious groups (RGs) have the right to conduct religious rituals and ceremonies, hold worship services, and teach religious doctrines. They are not registered with the government and have therefore no legal personality. They cannot open a bank account, build, buy or rent premises or publish or import religious material. In order to get access to the upper category, a religious group must prove that it has been existing as such for at least 15 years. This is the status of Bak’s community.
Local religious organisations (LROs) must consist of no less than ten persons over the age of eighteen that permanently reside in a given area. They are registered both at the federal and the local level. They can open a bank account, buy and own or rent buildings for religious purposes, acquire, import, export and disseminate religious literature, enjoy tax and other benefits, and so on. Additionally, they can also create local religious organisations as affiliates without any waiting period obligation.
Centralised religious organisations (CROs) must consist of no less than three local religious organisations to be eligible for registration as such. They enjoy the same rights as LROs. After 50 years of existence and activity in the country, they can include the word ‘Russia(n)’ in their official title.
About the implementation of the anti-missionary legislation
Protestants of all non-Orthodox denominations are mainly targeted for their attempts to share their beliefs with other people on the basis of the anti-missionary Varovaya Laws, signed by President Vladimir Putin in summer 2016.
On 23 November 2016, a local prosecutor's office conducted an inspection of the Salvation Army in Vladivostok. A case was opened on the grounds that the organisation ‘in its missionary activity uses and distributes literature and printed materials without identifying labels of the religious organization.’ On 20 December 2016, the Salvation Army of Vladivostok was found guilty of having religious literature, including 36 copies of the Bible and collections of religious songs in the worship hall, that did not have identification labels with the name of the denomination. The decision concerning the destruction of the Bibles evoked such a great public resonance that the decision was appealed. On 30 December 2016, the order of the magistrate judge was amended: the section about the destruction of the confiscated items was removed but the rest of judge's order remained unchanged. The case was finally dismissed by the Constitutional Court.[i]
In 2016, Indian Protestant pastor Victor-Immanuel Mani, who is married to a Russian woman and has a Russian-born child, was the first foreigner to be deported under Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 5 (‘Foreigners conducting missionary activity’). Naberezhnyye Chelny City Court found him guilty on 20 December 2016 of advertising religious gatherings on social media and allegedly giving religious literature to a non-member of his Church. He was also fined 30,000 Roubles.[ii]
On 16 May 2018, Nosisa Shiba, a student of the final year of the Nizhny Novgorod Medical Academy, a citizen of Swaziland (Africa), was charged on the basis of Article 18.8, Part 4 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law of the Russian Federation, with a sentence of immediate deportation. The young woman, who had been a protestant since childhood, began going to an Evangelical church of Nizhny Novgorod upon her arrival in Russia. According to the press service of the church, she sang a song about God and his love for people in her church one time. A video of Shiba's performance was found on YouTube by the Federal Security Service (F.S.B.). The court ruled that she be fined 7,000 Roubles and be deported after the completion of her studies.[iii].
This case is all the more important as the individual right to practice one’s faith in community in private homes is guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration and the ICCPR, ratified by the Russian Federation, but has been repeatedly violated in cases concerning non-Orthodox communities.
Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose movement was banned in 2017, have been sentenced to several years in prison. Members of Said Nursi followers and Tabligh Jamaat members, two peaceful Muslim movements, are still behind bars for studying the Qu’ran in private meetings.
[i] ⬆︎ Chugunov, Sergey, ‘High Court fixes strict requirements on evangelism’, Religiia i Pravo, 22 December 2017, http://www.sclj.ru/news/detail.php?SECTION_ID=487&ELEMENT_ID=7737&print… (accessed 31 May 2018).
[ii] ⬆︎ Arnold, Victoria, ‘Russia: Alleged ‘missionary activity’ prosecutions continue’, Forum18 News Service, 1 March 2017, http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2261 (accessed 29 May 2018).
[iii] ⬆︎ Stetson, ‘Russia Religion News: African Pentecostal student sentenced for illegal evangelism’, Stetson.edu, 17 May 2018 https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/180517c.html (accessed 29 May 2018).