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Persecution of Protestants in Russia
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April 25, 2008


         Persecution of Protestants in Russia


After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2001, President Bush told the gathered press: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Later, it was said that the key to the leaders’ simpatico was Putin’s story about his mother giving him a cross that he continues to carry with him.  I have always felt that Putin put one over on Bush and probably bought the crucifix at the airport gift shop.

Yesterday a deeply disturbing New York Times article confirmed all of this for me.  The story, “At the Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church,” describes a country where any faith besides the majority Russian Orthodox Church is discriminated against and oppressed.  For Catholics and Baptists, and especially evangelical Protestants, missionary work is obstructed.

In addition, proselytizing is essentially outlawed, building new churches is rarely approved by the state and leading members of the orthodox clergy demonize protestant doctrine.  Some churches are forced to meet in apartments.  The rhetoric is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism that was once rampant in Europe.  In addition, the Orthodox Patriarch takes an active public role in validating Putin’s autocratic rule.

The circumstances in Russia are very similar to those in China (see “In China, Churches Challenge the Rules” and “Up From the Underground,” two Washington Post background pieces).

The long, deep slide of freedom, equality and human rights in Russia has been well documented (see e.g., “Russia’s Lid on the Media,” an op-ed from the Washington Post on June 15, 2006; “In Russia, Psychiatry is Again a Tool Against Dissent,“ a Washington Post article from 9/30/06; and “Neo-Nazi Skinhead Attacks Surge in Russia,” a Wall Street Journal article from 4/7/08). 

Almost all independent media outlets have been closed or threatened if their coverage doesn’t support the Kremlin.  Powerful businessmen who have challenged Putin have been jailed and had their businesses sold out from under them by government diktat at bargain prices.  The courts appear to be a rubber stamp for the state.  Opposition candidates seem to have difficulty campaigning without harassment.  Foreign non-governmental organizations who promote democracy have seen their activities severely limited. 

Perhaps even more troubling, a former KGB operative, who accused Putin of masterminding a terrorist plot that created a pretext for renewing the war in Chechnya, was murdered in London under extremely suspicious circumstances.  One of the nation’s top journalists was gunned down in the vestibule of her apartment.  And now, Putin has anointed his hand-picked successor who is likely to allow Putin to continue to rule the country from the post of prime minister even though this essentially violates their constitution.  

What little progress made by Gorbachev and Yeltsin after the fall of the atheistic Soviet Union has been completely destroyed by Putin, an ex-KGB agent.  He has returned Russia to the threshold of a police state with little condemnation from the US.  This is so despite the fact that Russia still has approximately 5,000 nuclear warheads.

How has Putin been able to get away with this?  Russia is more dangerous that al-Qaeda, Iran, N. Korea and China combined, yet America continues to call Russia an ally.  Right now, our diplomacy is focused on trying to get them to agree to a missile defense system in Europe that doesn’t even work.

Many Russians were upset at their nation’s diminished stature and power after the Cold War.  This has resulted in a backlash against America.  The Russian Orthodox Church then must be viewed as a tool in Putin’s hands to bolster nationalism as much as a part of the body of Christ.

If this were Iran, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, or China the US would be raising incredible alarm bells.  Instead, as long as Russia doesn’t get in our way on the “war on terrorism” we remain silent.  Their behavior is deemed acceptable because Russia can veto any US move in the UN Security Council because they are a permanent member.  So much for our principles.  Even worse, the Christian church has been less than vocal about this aspect of the “persecuted church.”

The persecution seems to be worse in the Belgorod region of southwestern Russia, but it is clearly national policy.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with pictures of Jesus in the classroom, as is recommended in Belgorod.  In fact, it’s a good thing.  But here, the faith is a pretext for nationalism and re-imposing a near totalitarian regime.

As a man quoted in the New York Times said, “The power holders, they are, as a rule, atheists.”  In some cases, former communist officials perceiving the winds blowing from Moscow, have apparently adopted their faith as a career enhancement.

Many Russians used to long for freedom.  They seem to be complacent with the current “Big Brother.”  During the Cold War Soviet citizens coveted blue jeans, American cigarettes and rock and roll.  They had to surreptitiously obtain what they wanted on the black market.  Today, all these things are readily available.  They got what they wanted.  Is this all they wanted?

More importantly, how can the Russian Orthodox Church behave in this way?

National strength and ethnicity is placed ahead of the word of God.  However, they are not alone in this.  The same can be said about the Catholic Church whose doctrine asserts that only Rome is the true church and that the pope is infallible.  Jews have gutted the Pentateuch of Moses and chosen the commandments of God that they deem convenient to follow.  The same can be said of Muslims.  Extremist evangelicals here in the US call damnation down on the non-“elect” who fail to adhere to their self-proclaimed conservative “requirements” for being saved.

For Christians, we must accept that this is wrong, here as well as in Russia.  Anywhere for that matter.  Otherwise, you downplay extent of the Lord’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. 

Hebrews 11:6 implies that those who sincerely seek God shall be saved, and the Catholics accepted this in Vatican II.  The New Testament says that, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  Look up the Greek, “willing” refers to the will of the omnipotent God.

We must agree on a few simple concepts as Christians.  There is much that we won’t know until we get to heaven.  Until then, it is incumbent upon us all to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

Jesus Christ preached against sectarianism and said that “he who is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:49-50, Mark 9:38-41).  So, let us be of one accord (Philippians 2:2).  True and total love requires nothing less.


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