RUSSIA: Protestants targeted in Nizhny Novgorod

Two African medical students from “Jesus Embassy” Bible Centre, a Pentecostal church in World Cup host city Nizhny Novgorod, have been deported and fined for appearing in videos of worship services posted on social media. The church was also fined.

Russia’s FSB security service (which succeeded the KGB) initiated the cases, in which Kudzai Nyamarebvu and Nosise Vusiwe Shiba were charged with “illegal missionary activity”. The students, who had spent six years studying in Russia, were permitted to stay to complete their final exams but had to leave by 30 June.

Vladimir Ozolin, a lawyer for the Russian Pentecostal Union, told Forum 18: “The charges of illegal missionary activity are completely unlawful. I would like to hope that the cases were initiated by the stupidity of the ‘siloviki’ [security forces]; otherwise this greatly undermines the authority of Russia in the international arena.”

Law enforcement agencies have been increasing pressure on Protestants in the Nizhny Novgorod region recently, using both the so-called “anti-missionary” law of 2016 and immigration law to punish churches and members for activities such as inviting students to parties and posting videos of worship on social media.

Russia’s “anti-missionary” law, part of the officially-titled Yarovaya Law (named for one of its authors), defines missionary activity so vaguely that law enforcement authorities can construe almost anything as such.

Medical students deported

Zimbabwean medical student Kudzai Nyamarebvu was fined and ordered to be deported after Jesus Embassy in Nizhny Novgorod posted a video on social media which showed her inviting two fellow African students to a welcome party at the church in February. The judge said this constituted “missionary activity” and therefore violated the terms of her education visa. The church and its regional association (Jesus Embassy Union of Evangelical Churches in Nizhny Novgorod) were also fined. Kudzai’s appeal failed, but the judge allowed her to stay until 30 June 2018 to complete her medical studies.

The FSB also initiated the prosecution of another member of Jesus Embassy, Nosise Vusiwe Shiba from Swaziland. She was fined and ordered to be deported for participating in a missionary conference in 2017 and singing at another in 2018. Nosise, also in her final year of medical school, was permitted to remain until 30 June to complete her degree.

Many other Nizhny Novgorod prosecutions

Other Protestant churches in the Nizhny Novgorod region have also faced prosecution many times since the adoption of the Yarovaya law – the region has one of the highest levels of prosecution under the law in the whole of Russia.

Seventh-Day Adventist lawyer Vasily Nichik told Forum 18 on 19 June that Nizhny Novgorod is “among the foremost in terms of persecution in the field of religious freedoms“. He said it is difficult to explain why, but that, “In these matters, very often everything depends on the personalities within the system“.

Jesus Embassy communities in the region have received the most law enforcement attention, but other Protestant communities have also been affected. Lawyer Aleksey Vetoshkin told Forum 18 on 17 May, “The FSB is interested in Jesus Embassy itself and Protestants in general. After this pressure, the number of African parishioners has fallen from 150 to 20“.

Out of 18 religious communities prosecuted in the Nizhny Novgorod region in 2017 and 2018, 16 were Protestant: six Pentecostal, five Seventh-Day Adventists, three independent Protestant and two Baptist Union. The other two were Hare Krishna and Jehovah’s Witness.

Churches host World Cup viewings

Russian legislation states that evangelism must be confined to officially recognised churches, so instead of carrying out evangelistic campaigns around World Cup match venues, more than 400 Evangelical churches across Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other host cities have organised viewings of the matches in their buildings, where they have been distributing literature including Russian New Testaments and introducing their Bible study programmes.

Sergey Rakhuba of Mission Eurasia told Christianity Today that since the introduction of the Yarovaya Law, churches believe “the door is possibly closing, but still there is a remaining window, so we need to use and mobilise the rest of the world to pray for the Church to use [the World Cup] to share the gospel in Russia”.

(Main source Forum 18. Also Christianity Today/World Watch Monitor)