Religious freedom is continuing to decline sharply across the Russian Federation and occupied Ukraine, as authorities apply vague laws targeting extremism, terrorism, missionary activity, and undesirable organizations to ban various religious activities by Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. That is the conclusion of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan government commission tasked with making policy recommendations to US officials on religious freedom violations internationally. USCIRF published two new Russia Updates in July, following its 2023 Annual Report released in April which lists Russia as one of 17 countries it recommends the United States State Department should designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” due to the number and severity of religious freedom violations.
The special reports also call attention to religious freedom violations associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including Russian government prosecution of protestors opposing the war on religious grounds, as well as mistreatment of religious minorities in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.
Pastor Andrey Shirokov with his wife following his release (photo from Telegram channel Mirt)
Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, President of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, says her organization welcomes the international attention the USCIRF reports bring to religious freedom violations by Russian authorities but says the reports “only scratch the surface”. “The reports by USCIRF and others highlight the high-profile cases of religious discrimination involving government allegations of extremism, terrorism, and anti-state activity against religious groups,” says Representative Foley. “But far more common—and in our opinion, far more concerning—are the surging number of much less well-known cases where ordinary Russian Christians who are doing ordinary Christian activities end up fined or imprisoned by ordinary police and judges applying ordinary Russian laws to stop them.”
Representative Foley says those cases are typically too low-profile to appear in religious freedom reports by USCIRF and other watchdog groups but are in her organization’s view more representative of the day-to-day discrimination being faced by an increasing number of Protestant Christians in Russia.
Vyacheslav Koldiaev receives flowers from children at the Baptist church in Arkhangelsk, Russia, following his release from prison (Source: Портал Верность)
This year, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has profiled the following cases:
- In separate cases in May, courts in Russia’s far northeast Chukotka Autonomous Okrug fined two Christians, Ryshkov Mikhail Ivanovich and Kovtun Nikolai Alekseevich, for personally distributing Bibles and Christian books, ruling that the distributions constituted illegal church recruitment and not personal evangelism. https://vomkorea.com/en/2023/06/27/vomk-report-260/
- Pastor Andrey Shirokov and a group of Moscow pastors were carrying humanitarian aid intended for fellow believers in the Luhansk region when Pastor Shirokov was detained on April 21 at the Dovzhanka checkpoint southeast of the city of Luhansk. He pled not guilty to the charge of petty hooliganism but was sentenced to 12 days of detention by the court in Novoshakhtinsk. https://vomkorea.com/en/2023/05/23/vomk-report-256/
- Vyacheslav Koldiaev was released from prison in Arkhangelsk, Russia on March 3 after serving a two-year sentence on a charge of alleged “use of violence dangerous to life or health against a representative of the authorities”. The case gained widespread attention among Christians around the world when video evidence exonerating Koldiaev was apparently ignored by the court, leading to Koldiaev’s conviction on May 13, 2021. Koldiaev had been part of a human chain of supporters surrounding the Baptist Church in Archangelsk, Russia on September 24, 2020 in an effort by the church to prevent a court-ordered demolition crew from tearing down a portion of the church’s building. https://vomkorea.com/en/2023/03/21/vomk-report-246/
- On September 1, 2022 in Armavir, authorities came to the workplace of a Christian, Maslenik Stanislav, and accused him carrying out missionary work by distributing copies of the newspaper “Do You Believe?” to participants in a key-making workshop he led. They searched the premises and seized eight newspapers. The Armavir city court found him guilty and fined him 5,000 rubles (approx. 90,000KRW). https://vomkorea.com/en/2023/01/10/vomk-report-236/
The “Do You Believe” newspaper that Stefan Valery, Pastor Vladimir Kharchenko and Maslenik Stanislav were accused of distributing.
Representative Foley says that the reason stories like these are not included in religious freedom reports is that the Christians involved do not seek to publicize their plight but instead focus on continuing their ministry. “No matter what the Russian government does, these ordinary Christians simply continue their service to the Lord,” says Representative Foley. She says that is why her organization tells the stories of these ordinary Christians. “Our primary goal isn’t to get governments to pressure other governments. Our primary goal is to tell these stories in order to encourage Christians in Russia, Ukraine, and around the world to remember that true freedom—freedom in Christ—can’t be given by governments, and it can’t be taken away by them either.”
Representative Foley says that the ordinary Christians facing persecution in Russia and Occupied Ukraine should be regarded by Christians around the world not as victims but as models of the ordinary Christian life to be emulated by other believers. “The USCIRF reports on persecution are recommendations to the US government,” says Representative Foley. “Our reports on persecution are recommendations to Christians around the world. Our recommendation is: Imitate these persecuted brothers and sisters! No matter what restrictions your government or your workplace or your family tries to place on the practice of your faith, the Lord Jesus is greater still. He will equip you for faithful witness even under the harshest circumstances. The Christians in Russia and occupied Ukraine are examples of the Lord’s care even in the valley of the shadow of death. So don’t be afraid!”
Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s work with evangelical Christians in Russia and occupied Ukraine can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/project/russia-ministry/.