Baptist missionary fighting Russia's anti-evangelism law

Ruth and Donald OssewaardeA longtime Baptist missionary convicted under Russia's anti-evangelism law has returned briefly to his Illinois home as lawyers appeal his conviction and challenge the law's constitutionality.

Donald Ossewaarde was compelled to end his ministry months ago after his arrest under the July 2016 law. He hopes other Baptists might find ways to continue to minister in Russia as his attorneys defend religious freedom in the nation more than 25 years after the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

"There's different ways we could continue the ministry and that is going to depend on how the court rules," said Ossewaarde, who established his ministry in Russia in 2002. "We're hoping the court overturns all of the charges, which could mean we could go back to the same type of house church services that we were doing.

"If they rule in such a way that meeting in a private house is no longer going to be a legal option," he said, "then these other missionaries have experience with setting up registered organizations."

Ossewaarde's attorneys anticipate a court date as early as March or April, making his case the first appeal of a conviction under the Yarovaya Law (named for bill coauthor Irina Yarovaya) to reach the nation's Supreme Court in Moscow. In a separate case, his attorneys are appealing the law's constitutionality before Russia's Constitutional Court, a separate legal body, but have not yet filed that case, Ossewaarde told Baptist Press Jan. 4 from his Illinois home.

The Independent Baptist missionary expressed joy at the opportunity to see his wife, children, grandchildren and members of his home congregation, Faith Baptist Church in Bourbonnais, Ill. "This has been a great blessing all the way around," he said. His wife, Ruth, returned to the U.S. for safety after Ossewaarde's August 2016 arrest.

Ossewaarde was charged Aug. 14, 2016, under the new religion law for holding religious services in his home, advertising services on bulletin boards in nearby neighborhoods, and failing to give authorities written notification when he began his religious activities. He was fined 40,000 rubles, about $600. The conviction was upheld Sept. 30 on appeal, but Ossewaarde continues to fight the conviction.

Russia's crackdown on religious liberty is occurring as the world marked on Christmas the 25th anniversary of the fall of the USSR. Ossewaarde, speaking from his personal evangelistic experiences there, said an initial thirst for the Gospel that emerged after the USSR's collapse has subsided.

"The hunger for spiritual things has drastically changed in the last 25 years," Ossewaarde told BP. "My first visit to the former Soviet Union was in 1994 when I went to Belarus. In those days people were just thirsty for the Word of God.

"We would bring ... a truckload of Bibles into a park in the center of town and people would just mob you. Hundreds and even thousands of people would just surround us begging, 'Please, please give me a Bible. I want to know what God has to say.' And it was ... a fantastic time," he said. "We thought that was the way it was going to continue to be. Within five or seven years, everybody who wanted a Bible had gotten one, and the curiosity factor seemed to be satisfied. And then people seemed to be more interested in more secular things of Western life." The causes of the loss of interest in the Bible are open to interpretation, Ossewaarde said. 

He plans to return to Russia in the middle of January to continue efforts to sell his apartment there and make other preparations to leave permanently, while his wife remains in the U.S. for safety.

Before his current visit to Illinois, police visited his apartment around Thanksgiving while he was inside. But he refused to open the door on the advice of his attorneys. In Russia, residents are not required to open their door for police, Ossewaarde said.

"Whether that was something they did as a form of intimidation, whether they were going to question me about my trial, I really don't know," he said. Later that same day, when Ossewaarde was not home, someone poured glue on his doorknob and stuck clay in his keyhole and elsewhere on the door. While he has no proof of the perpetrators of the vandalism, Ossewaarde suspects it was done by the police instead of common hoodlums.

"The lawyer told me that they're playing psychological games with me to try to intimidate me, to frighten me," Ossewaarde said of the police. "I will say that it did bother me at the time, but nothing has happened since then. I don't feel nearly as bothered by it as I did at the time."

Ossewaarde's attorneys believe they have strong arguments in both his appeal and the constitutional challenge to the law, he said.

"We don't believe that the law as it was written should have been applied to us. If the Supreme Court reaches an impartial decision, we expect the Supreme Court will overturn the decision," Ossewaarde said. "We strongly believe that the law as written does violate the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, and so ... if there's an impartial decision in the Constitutional Court, they will overturn that part of the law that's being used against missionaries."

The new law defines illegal evangelism as activity by an authorized representative of an officially registered religious organization who uses media to publicly spread the organization's doctrine to non-members to convince them to join the group, Ossewaarde said. But he and his wife worked on the mission field with financial support from churches across the U.S. and did not represent an official religious organization, he said.

Ossewaarde was arrested with five other ministers of various faiths and denominations within a month of the law's passage. They were levied fines varying from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles, with only one man, a Hare Krishna, acquitted.

In the five months after the law's passage, 29 people were prosecuted on related charges, with 15 cases ending in convictions and fines, Forum 18 reported Dec. 20.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor.

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