In separate cases in May, courts in Russia’s far northeast Chukotka Autonomous Okrug fined two Christians for personally distributing Bibles and Christian books, ruling that the distributions constituted illegal church recruitment and not personal evangelism.
The two Christians, Ryshkov Mikhail Ivanovich from the easternmost Russian city of Anadyr and Kovtun Nikolai Alekseevich from the Arctic port town of Pevek, have each filed appeals.
According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, the cases represent a new level of restriction on personal evangelistic activities for Russian Christians.
“This is the first time that Russian courts have ruled that individual Christians handing out Christian Bibles, books, and tracts in public is an illegal form of church recruitment,” says Representative Foley. “There are previous cases where courts have fined Christians for doing various Christian activities, but those rulings associated the offense with churches’ failure to register with the government. But in these two rulings, no mention is made of the registration status of the defendants’ churches. Instead, the courts criminalized the public distribution of Christian literature, ruling that it is not an act of personal evangelism.”
In the first case, Ryshkov Mikhail Ivanovich was fined for violating Article 24.2 of the Federal Law No., “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations”. “On March 11 of this year he and a group of friends distributed calendars with the title ‘What God Promised’ along with the Christian books ‘The Most Important Truths’ and ‘Stop and Ask’ and other Christian tracts in the city of Anadyr,” says Representative Foley. “No authorities stopped or interfered with them at that time, but six days later police came to the address shown on the materials and accused him of ‘distributing information about the doctrine of a religious organization among the inhabitants … in order to get new members’.”
Representative Foley says that in the Anadyr district court on May 18, Ryshkov Mikhail Ivanovich pled not guilty. “He explained that he had not distributed the materials to recruit people to his church but to lead people to salvation,” says Representative Foley. “He cited Article 28 of the Russian Constitution, which says that every citizen is guaranteed the freedom to spread their religious beliefs and act in accordance with them.”
According to Representative Foley, the court found Mikhail Ivanovich Ryshkov guilty and fined him 10,000 rubles (approximately 150,000 KRW).
In the second case, Kovtun Nikolai Alekseevich handed out copies of a book called ‘25 Favorite Stories from the Bible’ while at a store in Pevek in March. According to Representative Foley, he also was charged under Article 24.2 of the Federal Law No. 125, with authorities contending that distributing the Bibles was an illegal form of church recruitment.
In separate cases in May, two Christians were fined for personally distributing the Christian books shown here, along with other Christian materials.
“At the Chaunsky district court on May 31, 2023, Kovtun Nikolai Alekseevich pled not guilty,” says Representative Foley. “His defense was that the Bible is the word of God, not a church recruitment tool. It leads people to God, not just to church. He said that in distributing the Bible stories he was not acting on behalf of any religious organization but as a citizen of the Russian Federation who has the legal right to share his faith.” But according to Representative Foley, the court found him guilty and fined him 5,000 rubles (approximately 75,000 KRW).
Representative Foley says the cases illustrate the increasing difficulties facing evangelical Protestant believers in Russia. “The Russian Orthodox Church exercises strong spiritual as well as political and legal influence across all of Russia,” says Representative Foley. “Where evangelical Protestant practice is different than Russian Orthodox practice, there are growing difficulties for the evangelical practice. For example, in Russian Orthodoxy, evangelism and distribution of Christian literature would indeed be forms of building the church. But for evangelical Protestants, coming to faith in Christ and joining a specific church organization are separate matters. These court cases are just the latest examples showing Russian courts operating according to the Russian Orthodox understanding and criminalizing the Protestant one. It is a trend that Christians around the world should bring to the Lord in prayer.”
Representative Foley says Voice of the Martyrs Korea is also calling for prayers for the Christians and for the judges who will be involved as the two cases are reviewed in appeals courts.
Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s work with evangelical Russian believers can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/project/russia-ministry/.