Can you imagine listening to your pastor’s sermon one Sunday, and seeing policemen walk in to the service? They’re not there to apprehend a criminal, but to listen to what your pastor is saying. They listen intently. They take notes. Then, after the service, they arrest your pastor.
For Donald Ossewaarde, this is not simply a story. One day, it became reality.
Donald’s life has been focused on sharing the Gospel. Originally hailing from the United States, Donald moved to Oryol, a small town south of Moscow, Russia, over 20 years ago.
Donald and his wife had been hosting peaceful Sunday services in their apartment regularly for over 10 years, when one day the police arrived unannounced. During this Sunday gathering in August 2016, four policemen entered his home and sat down. They took notes during the service.
When the service was over, the policemen escorted Donald to the police station where they charged him with a criminal act of “extremism”—conducting “illegal missionary activity.”
Donald’s life effort—to share the Gospel in Russia—came to a screeching halt.
In July 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed legislation into law supposedly aimed at addressing the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. Even at the time, there was concern that the law would undermine religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly in Russia.
Less than a month after the legislation became law, the regular church services that Donald and his wife hosted were shut down. With the stroke of a pen, Donald’s mission for over 20 years was taken from him. Donald’s hospitality and commitment to the Gospel earned him the label of extremist from the Russian authorities. How can this be?
You see, Donald is not the only victim of the legislation that President Putin signed into law—coined the “Yarovaya law”—in 2016.
In at least one instance, entire faith groups have been banned by the law. In 2017, the law was used to label the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist.” This meant that the group’s administrative center, as well as 395 local congregations, were closed down and their assets sold.
Under the law, all “missionary activities” require the government’s stamp of approval. What does the term “missionary activities” include? Perhaps the better question is, what does it not include? It’s defined as, “sharing one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbeliever with the aim of involving these individuals in the ‘structure’ or the religious association.”
Any person of faith or faith group could become an offender. Yet, even if you belong to a registered and approved religious group, you must carry a permit showing that your group is approved by the state. Is it surprising that religious minorities have had a difficult time getting an approved permit?
The “Yarovaya law” directly contradicts the Russian Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion, as well as the freedom to profess no religion at all.
Donald Ossewaarde decided that he would not stand idly by as Russia ran roughshod over his rights. He appealed his conviction right up to the Constitutional Court in Russia, and when that final appeal failed, he sought relief from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) with the support of ADF International.
The ECtHR has the opportunity to address the legality of Russia’s “Yarovaya law,” thereby ensuring the rights of freedom of religion, speech and conscience for the 822 million citizens living under its jurisdiction.
Article 20.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, clearly states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
The “Yarovaya law” undermines this article directly. The conduct of the assembly and association that Donald and others who have been fined and convicted under the law can only be described as “peaceful.” Yet, they find themselves at the mercy of Russia’s unjust law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects fundamental rights for all humans. Donald is human… right?
Will you join us?
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, ADF International reaffirms the fundamental understanding that human rights are based on the inherent dignity of each person.
Through the “Yarovaya law,” Russia has attempted to erode the dignity of Donald Ossewaarde, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many others. Peaceful citizens, and entire groups, have been labeled extremists.
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