The Mormon church reassigned 65 missionaries who were called to serve in Russia, and is renaming others “volunteers” who will focus on community service rather than converting new members, in response to sweeping anti-terrorism legislation passed in Russia this summer that included provisions banning proselytizing in public.
Mormons are one of many religious groups struggling to operate under the new law, which bans preaching or disseminating religious materials except by authorized officials in registered religious buildings or sites. The restrictions extend to private homes and online communications.
The law’s passage and approval by President Vladimir Putin drew strong criticism from human rights and religious freedom advocates inside Russia and around the world.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association cancelled a World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians that was scheduled to take place in Moscow next month, and rescheduled the event later in Washington, D.C., citing the new Russian law that “severely limits Christians’ freedoms.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, created by Congress, strongly condemned the measure, arguing that it would make it very difficult for religious groups to operate in Russia.
Anuttama Dasa, spokesman for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as Hare Krishnas, said the law is “frightening” a lot of religious communities.
“The law originally started as anti-terrorist, but it completely opened the door to persecution of religious minorities in particular,” he said.
A month after the restrictions went into effect on July 20, at least seven people had been charged under it, according to a report by Forum 18, a news service based in Norway that monitors religious freedom in Russia and Central Asia.
The list includes a Baptist preacher from the United States who was charged with holding religious services in his home and advertising them on public bulletin boards. He was convicted and fined, but he is appealing the case.
Religious minorities in Russia have also struggled under an anti-extremism law that since 2007 has defined religious extremism as promoting “the superiority of one’s own religion” and does not require the threat or use of violence.
Many nonviolent Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been charged and convicted under the law. And a federal list of banned “extremist” material now exceeds 3,000 banned religious texts.
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