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.
In the former Soviet Union, the government promoted atheism and repressed religious organizing by closing churches and synagogues, or imprisoning or executing religious leaders or devotees.
After the fall of Communism, it adopted a new approach of religious tolerance. There was a flurry of religious activity, with formerly underground religious groups opening up and foreign missionaries moving into the country.
“There was a backlash against it almost immediately,” said Geraldine Fagan, an advocate and author of Believing in Russia — Religious Policy after Communism.”
While the federal policy promoted open religious expression, many local leaders were resistant and pushed for restrictions, which have increased over time.
Today a majority — nearly 70 percent — of Russia’s 143 million people identify as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent consider themselves Muslim, according to a 2013 poll cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. A small minority adhere to other faiths.
Experts say most Russians remain skeptical of different religions, particularly from outside the country.
Josh Harrison, who served a Mormon mission in the Samara region in Russia from 2013 to 2015, said much of his job was to overcome stigma.
“There was propaganda that we were some kind of cult or spy system because we were American,” he said.
During the Russian invasion and annexing of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, there was a spike in anti-American sentiment brought on by the United States’ support of anti-Russian protests in Ukraine. Harrison said missionaries stopped wearing their name tags as a security measure, so they would not be easily identifiable as Americans.
He said the regional governments were strict in their supervision. It was onerous to get visas approved and re-approved in each new city and he spent “a lot of time in taxis” bringing his passport from one office to another.
Last month, six Mormon missionaries in the same region had to be reassigned because of visa infractions. Five went to other countries and one returned home.
James E. Andrik, associate General Counsel for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which counts about 175,000 members in Russia, said the crack down on missionary work strikes at a core tenet of his faith that requires all members to be missionaries. “It’s a commandment from Jesus to talk about the good news of the kingdom. That’s why we witness,” he said.
He said obeying the new law will be difficult.
“We are law abiding scrupulously until men are asking something that only God should decide,” he said.