Missionary Work after the Yarovaya Laws, Part II: Legal Analysis

This is the second installment of three posts on the effect of recent Russian legislation on the Church and specifically missionary work in Russia. The first post provided a general introduction. This post will present my best attempt at a close reading of the statute. The last post will provide some of my thoughts on what it all means.

Because we are dealing with an extremely complex piece of legislation modifying a variety of statutes (not to mention the obvious fact that it’s in Russian) I’ll paraphrase its basic effects while including links for the curious.

For the less curious, TL;DR: The missionaries are staying, but they’ll likely soon have nothing to do because the members probably can’t help them anymore: for ordinary Russians, talking to your friends in public or in your own home about your religion is now illegal.

A thorough legal analysis would include a section on the Russian Constitution’s protections for freedom of expression (Art. 29) and religion (Arts. 19.2, 28) which complicate any legal attempt to limit missionary work. I hope to delve deeper into that problem at a later time, but for now, it should be clear as a background norm that such rights are supposed to be protected by the government.

The first relevant provision modifies requirements for long-term missionary visas (Federal Law 114-F3 section 25.6), making them harder to obtain.  It is my understanding that the Church does not use the affected categories for ordinary missionaries. (That’s from personal experience working in a mission office about a decade ago, so I invite correction on the point.) I couldn’t say whether it will affect mission presidents and their families, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the provision. Ultimately, the changes simply mean that missionaries would have to be brought in under different provisions, or that they would need to have additional ecclesiastical duties

The next few provisions will have little effect on the Church. One bars missionary efforts by religious organizations not registered in Russia, but my understanding is that the Church has carefully registered itself so as to not be subject to this provision. Another might actually be an improvement to the law, because it clarifies that the pre-existing requirement that any literature distributed by a religious organization needs to have its full legal name printed thereon applies to materials distributed for missionary purposes. (While this creates an additional burden on the Church – perhaps requiring printing special copies of pamphlets for every region – at least it’s clear. Such a requirement could have been read into preexisting statutes, but now at least it is on the surface where it can be dealt with.)

Likewise, a third change streamlines the language of the provision allowing religious organizations to invite foreigners to work for them from “preaching activities” to explicitly include missionaries. This could have some visa effects – are missionaries still eligible for humanitarian visas, or only work visas? – but probably was effected to make the statute’s language consistent rather than impose some particular change.

The bulk of the effect of this legislation on missionary work concerns the addition of a large section dedicated specifically to missionary work to the federal code concerning the freedom of conscience.

Missionary work is defined in as broad a way as possible: “Missionary activity … is defined as activity of a religious association intended to spread information about its doctrines among people who are not participants (members, followers) of the particular religious association, with the goal of drawing those people into the group of participants (members, followers) of the religious association, carried out directly by the religious association or by citizens by the association or by legal entities, publicly, by means of the media, the information-telecommunication network “Internet”, or by other legal methods.”

Missionary activity thus defined is allowed “without restriction” in buildings owned by the religious organization, and various other specially-designated places such as cemeteries, but (reasonably so) not in other religious associations’ property.

Missionary work is not allowed in residences. If there is one takeaway from the law, it should be this.

In other public situations, only the leader of the local religious association (or a designated alternate) is allowed to engage in missionary activities without a special permit – essentially, a legal declaration by the religious association that the carrier is authorized to perform missionary work. This requirement is notably targeted at Russian citizens, but a similar requirement is also required of foreign citizens. (It is my understanding that it is already the Church’s practice is to issue such declarations for missionaries.)

The section goes on to outlaw missionary work in that threatens public safety in a variety of ways, including the use of narcotics, or the rejection of medical intervention for people “who are in a condition dangerous to their life or health.” Other disqualifying missionary activities include those which might “compel the destruction of the family,” “interference with the person, rights, and freedoms of citizens,” the placing of obstacles to compulsory education, and compulsion of members of a religious association to the alienation of their property for the use of the religious association. None of these provisions are defined with any particularity, meaning that the content will have to be filled by the actions of law enforcement and the courts.

Of particular note is the prohibition against missionary work intended to assist in the performance of “extremist activity.” This has been defined by recent legislation extremely broadly, encompassing all sorts of activities from supporting Ukraine on social media to distributing Jehovah’s Witness literature.

One final provision clarifies that only religious services and rites, not missionary work, is allowed to be performed in people’s homes (by reference to the law governing religious meetings held outside of religious buildings). On the face of it, this suggests that anointing for the sick and afflicted is allowed in homes, and perhaps even holding Sacrament Meeting, but no missionary work. As a preventative measure, the provision also prevents the legal conversion of a residence into a religious space, meaning that you can’t just have someone in the branch register their apartment as a church and hold member lessons there.

In the next post, I’ll provide my own thoughts on what this all means in practice. I think, however, if you’re still with me, it should be painfully clear that this legislation is written (a) extremely broadly and (b) could easily be applied in a way that would be devastating for members of the Church in Russia. More on that coming up.


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