Government crackdown on missionary presence could get worse


The Kazakh government continues to put pressure on foreign missionaries attempting to obtain visas to stay in the country. The Kazakh church is prepared for matters to get worse, reports MNN.

"Foreign involvement for the purpose of missionary work in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly difficult to happen," confirms Eric Mock, vice president of Ministry Operations for Slavic Gospel Association.

Norwegian news network Forum 18 conveys a number of instances in which the Kazakh government has denied visas to foreign missionaries of various minority faiths. A missionary visa, as it is, lasts only 180 days and cannot be renewed.

Mock says there is some fear that the visas will become even more restrictive. According to Forum 18, the Nur Otan Party has even created a document calling for further crackdown on "non-traditional faiths." Forum 18 quotes a report as saying, "The Nur Otan Party should devote special attention to the activity of non-traditional religious movements of destructive character. The destructive impact of such movements is very great."

With clear contempt toward the presence of evangelical Christian missionaries as well as missionaries for other minority faiths, the church as well as ministries like SGA need to prepare for any change. "[We need to] be sure that we do not assume that the world that we minister in today is the same that we minister in tomorrow," says Mock.

Whether or not missionary presence is increasingly restricted does not directly affect SGA, since their ministry mainly focuses on helping nationals. Still, won’t a crackdown harm the church? Mock says not as much as you might think.

"There is one thing that I saw [in Kazakhstan] that mostly encouraged my heart," explains Mock. "I saw a group of ethnic Kazakh young men who God has raised up with a passion to reach their own people. I had not really seen that in the past; it [had been] more of a Russian Baptist influence, but now I’m seeing Kazakh Baptist."

As long as changes don’t happen too abruptly, Mock says he believes the church will be able to handle any blows headed their way. The energy generated by young church leaders could be just what the Kazakh church needs to become self-sustaining. "With this new generation coming up, I think even with law changes, God has raised up this younger generation to make a profound impact for the sake of the Gospel."

If laws are passed too quickly or even just gradually, their effects will still of course be evident in the church. Mock says the best thing that we can do for them now is to pray. "There is nothing more important than praying for the believers in Kazakhstan to be passionate in reaching their own people, and to see more churches planted with that same commitment to advance the Gospel."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Evangelical Christians at risk from Russian government


Evangelical Christians may be at risk in Russia as Orthodoxy gains more and more governmental favor, reports MNN.

The Liberty of Conscience Institute recently discovered that the Russian government is cozying up to the Russian Orthodox Church in ways that may inhibit religious freedoms. Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association says there is reason to be concerned.

"Russia’s president [has] taken the initiative to permanently assign orthodox priest army units, and they’re also wanting to introduce religious education classes at state schools."

The more power the Orthodox Church gains, the more risk there will be to the religious freedoms of all minority religions, no less evangelical Christianity. Griffith says history proves that evangelical Christians may well be targeted if such legislation is passed. A sizeable evangelical movement would well be viewed as an encroachment on Orthodox territory, and would consequently not be taken lightly.

If this is the case, evangelical movement could be very much hindered in Russia. As it now stands, some evangelical churches experience virtually no opposition at all from the government, while others experience a great deal. If a national legislation should pass, opposition will likely extend to every evangelical church.

"If this becomes a policy of the national government to freeze out evangelicals, obviously that’s going to have a pretty big impact not only on freedom of worship," cautions Griffith, "but also on the proclamation of the Gospel."

Fortunately, in order for any such government-orthodox partnership to be enforced via the military and education, it would have to pass through a significant number of hoops. As it stands, this sort of breach on the separation of church and state goes directly against the Russian constitution, not to mention Western ideals.

"The West is concerned with human rights and the freedom of conscience and the freedom of worship," notes Griffith. "And officially under the constitution, there’s supposed to be freedom of religion and freedom of worship in Russia. So any moves to do this certainly fly in the face of what the Russian constitution would say."

Unfortunately, many Russians consider Orthodoxy as a given. Historically, the Orthodox Church has, more often than not, been considered an arm of the Russian government. Pray that the obvious infringement of government policy on the basis of the constitution would be enough to stop Orthodox alliances with the Russian government from being nationally enforced.

Slavic Gospel Association helps equip churches in Russia with training and materials to prepare them for every situation as evangelicals.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Deadline for re-registration passes; churches face illegal status


Oppressive new laws in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan required religious communities to re-register with the government by January 1, 2010 or face illegal status. As of December 16, only about 100 of Azerbaijan’s 534 religious communities had been able to do so. Fewer than half of Tajikistan’s religious communities re-registered, reports MNN.

According to Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association, officials place obstructions in the paths of churches trying to re-register.

"They will find some technicality or basically any reason to deny registration. So even if some of the groups actually follow the law to the letter and meet the requirements, it just seems very arbitrary and capricious as to whether the officials will agree to register to not," he explained.

It’s unclear how strictly the governments of the two nations will enforce their laws.

"In the worst case scenario…they could basically close congregations down and impose pretty stiff penalties," Griffith said. "In the best case scenario…unless they agree to fully repeal these statues or amend these laws, I think we need to just hope and pray that even though they’re on the books, these things won’t be enforced."

That’s often the case in countries that have similar laws. The new laws include other burdensome requirements in addition to the re-registration mandate. Azerbaijan’s law requires religious communities to provide more information for registration and to obtain approval to build or rebuild places of worship. It also prohibits the sale of religious literature in unapproved locations and religious activity outside registered addresses.

Tajikistan’s religion law censors religious literature, bans state officials from founding religious communities, requires state approval to invite foreigners for religious visits or to travel abroad for religious events, and restricts children’s religious activity and education.

Christians in Azerbaijan are especially concerned about how courts might interpret unclear provisions in the law. They fear a loose interpretation could penalize "peaceful religious activity." Griffith quoted a passage from the law and explained the issue.

"‘The community formulates its relations with other religious confessions on the basis of religious toleration (tolerance), respect and the avoidance of conflict,’ and the community cannot use violence or the threat of violence in proclaiming its faith. Well, if you don’t define those terms, such as ‘respect and the avoidance of conflict’…you could almost say that Christian evangelism could even be illegal under a formulation like that."

Since Christians believe in only one means of salvation — Jesus Christ — it would be entirely possible for disagreement with other religious groups to be interpreted as "conflict." However, Christians are not the only people worried about the potential impact of the law.

"It’s not just Christians that are concerned; we’ve got Muslim groups that are concerned. These are largely Muslim nations," Griffith said. "I think there are a number of people that are concerned about what this will possibly do down the road."

No matter what does happen, the Christian church will remain committed to the Gospel.

"Regardless of what happens in these countries, the churches still have their marching orders from the Lord: to proclaim the Gospel," Griffith said. "And no matter what man does, they’re going to continue to proclaim the Gospel."

Christians in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan need the prayers and support of their fellow believers. SGA has been supporting churches in the former Soviet Union for 75 years, and it continues to support churches in these two countries.

"It’s important to help them take advantage of every open door they can find to share the Gospel," Griffith said. "It might be through supporting a church-planting missionary; it might be through providing Russian-language Bibles and literature; it may be through helping to support in-country training, and sometimes that training has to take place quietly…. But for churches here in the West that have the resources, it’s important to support our brothers and sisters there who don’t have the resources that we do."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Draft legislation in Russia might make evangelism impossible


A draft legislation introduced this month threatens to make evangelism nearly impossible in Russia. A date has not yet been released for further ruling on the law, but in the meantime, evangelicals express concern, reports MNN.

“Only religious groups that have been registered in Russia for at least 15 year will be allowed to engage in any evangelistic or missionary activity,” says Bob Provost of Slavic Gospel Association. “For example, if a North American church were to send a youth group over to help with a summer camp (which happens a lot), or if they were to send over a music group to help with evangelistic activity, it would not be allowed. Foreigners in Russia on a temporary visa would not be permitted.”

The legislation also outlaws indigenous churches from any missionary activity within hospitals, orphanages, or homes for the aged. Children, under the new legislation, will be prohibited from attending religious activities without specific permission by a parent or guardian. This part of the law, in particular, would devastate specific ministry opportunities.

“The single greatest evangelistic opportunity that the Church has there today comes at Christmas time when they’re able to hold Christmas events and invite children from the community,” explains Provost. “In many cases, parents and grandparents accompany their children to these meetings and find out that the lies that they’ve been hearing via the media or in the public schools against evangelical Christianity are not true.”

As if all of these restrictions were not limiting enough, the legislation forbids any “offers of material, social and other benefits,” leaving the range of prohibited activity almost completely open-ended.

If passed, anyone convicted of anything under this legislation (offering food to the poor, sharing the Gospel with a child, evangelizing on a short-term trip etc.) could be fined up to $517 USD. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) has responded to the absurdity of the open-endedness of the draft legislation, but it does not appear as though the government has not appeared to have made any movement.

With all of these objectives brewing, an explanation as to “why” is appropriate. But so far, there doesn’t appear to be substantial reasoning. Provost suggests that the legislation may be in defense of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Although the Baptist Church is not growing astronomically in Russia, it is growing and may well be considered a threat.

“It’s evident to me that president Putin, when he came into power, put the government’s arm around the Orthodox Church again in order to unify the country,” says Provost. As a result, “Any religion that starts to get in the way of the Orthodox Church is going to be considered a threat, and steps are being taken to remove it.”

Amid all of the concern, the Church continues to live on in Russia. “605 men have been set apart and are ready to be sent as missionaries all over the former Soviet Union. We’re praying for partners who would help us send them,” says Provost. “Nine out of ten communities are still waiting for a Gospel witness presence. In other words, nine out of ten communities have never had a Bible teaching church.”

The RUECB is asking churches in Russia to fast and pray that the legislation would not be passed in any of the stages toward becoming law. Please pray with them.

Slavic Gospel Association will continue their work in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Repressive Religion Law and new punishments enter force


Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.

Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”

Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.

Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.

He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.

As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”

However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”

Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.

Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

AZERBAIJANI PASTOR VOWS TO FIGHT ON; MINISTRY CONTINUES TO PRAY


Slavic Gospel Association has been following the trial of a persecuted Azerbaijani pastor who was arrested and held on false charges. SGA’s Joel Griffith says they just got the verdict, reports MNN. “Pastor Hamid Shabanov was actually convicted on the false charge of possessing an illegal weapon.”

Unless Shabanov’s conviction is quashed, he will have a criminal record. Griffith says, “He’s insisting that he’s innocent. He’s going to continue fighting to clear his name.”

The court gave Shabanov a two-year corrective labour sentence. However, because imprisonment counts as three times’ corrective labour, Shabanov’s sentence is the equivalent of eight months’ imprisonment. As he was in pre-trial detention or house arrest for just over seven months, he has 27 days more to serve from February 11.

Griffith says there’s a question as to whether Shabanov will have to go back to jail at all. He was also fined 20 percent of his salary for the remaining 27 days of his sentence. But Shabanov does not have a job, therefore he does not have a salary.

It’s interesting to note that the conviction might have been an acknowledgment of Shabanov’s innocence. “If he had actually been found innocent, then that reflects poorly on the police and the authorities, and it could get them into some sort of legal ‘hot water.’ So it’s assumed that convicting him but not sending him to jail was sort of a way for the local authorities to ‘save face.’”

Pastor Shabanov told Forum 18 that at the trial, he repeatedly said that he was being prosecuted to punish him for his Christian faith. His ministry has gotten particularly close scrutiny. Although SGA supports work in the region, there is much opposition.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

AZERBAIJAN: PASTOR HAMID SHABANOV IS FREE UNTIL END OF TRIAL


Ministry: Pastor Hamid Shabanov is free until end of trial

There’s good news coming out of Azerbaijan. Yesterday during court proceedings, 52-year-old Pastor Hamid Shabanov was released while his trial continues, reports MNN.

Shabanov was arrested June 20 when his home was searched by authorities. They were looking for drugs and weapons. According to police, they found a gun. Shabanov’s congregation and his family insist that the pistol a Prosecutor’s Office official claims to have found was planted during a search of his home.

Shabanov and his unregistered church have been the focus of the government because they continue to pray and worship God without registration. However, the government won’t give his church the registration it needs, despite many attempts to do so.

Slavic Gospel Association supports work in the region. SGA’s Joel Griffith says Pastor Shabanov’s trail has been delayed numerous times. “Pastor Shabanov’s attorney has been complaining about the numerous delays. He’s cited procedural irregularities that they’ve tried to bring to the court. It just remains to be seen exactly how this case is going to be adjudicated.”

Griffith says this is a big concern. “If Pastor Shabanov is actually convicted on this charge, he could spend up to three years in prison. This is really troubling how evangelical churches in Azerbaijan are undergoing this kind of pressure.”

Griffith explains why the evangelical churches are seeing this kind of pressure. “It’s very similar to what they call the ‘Stan’ countries of Central Asia. It’s a largely-Muslim country.”

While evangelicals have always faced difficulties, the trouble has grown. “Within the past year or two, it just seems like they’ve really stepped up oppression on evangelicals, and I really believe that’s by and large due to the Muslim influence in the country.”

This case hasn’t drawn the attention of the international media. Griffith would like that to change.

But in the meantime, Griffith is asking Christians to pray. “Pray that this investigation would be conducted in a forthright and honest manner and that these charges would be dropped. Pray that he would actually be exonerated by this. We need to pray that the hearts of the Azerbaijani leaders would be softened toward evangelical churches and allow freedom for the Gospel to be proclaimed.”

Griffith says, “The enemy tries to persecute the church, but the Lord has the last word and often ends up bringing greater growth to the church.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph