For the first time since 2011, the Russian Federation appears on the Open Doors World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 most dangerous nations for Christians. Open Doors, which serves persecuted Christians throughout the world, notes in its newly released 2019 list that “radical Islam is largely to blame for Russia’s poor standing in how Christians are treated within its borders.”
Christians in Russia Face Numerous Challenges
Islamic oppression, denominational favoritism and governmental obstruction are three factors Open Doors cites in the persecution now occurring in Russia.
Of the nation’s 144 million residents, 82 percent say they’re Christian and only 12 percent are Muslim. Yet, according to Open Doors, “a strong, radical Islamic culture” in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region “exerts enormous adverse pressure and violent outbursts against Christians who have converted from a Muslim background.” In the Caucasus, Muslims outnumber Christians, and “Islamic militants are fighting against the Russian army to establish a Muslim emirate.”
Last February, an Islamic militant attacked a group of Russian Orthodox Christians in Dagestan, killing five women. Three months later, militants chanting “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is greatest”) attacked a Russian Orthodox church in Chechnya, killing one person.
“Today’s Russia is certainly lightyears better for Christians than the days behind the Iron Curtain,” says David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. “Yet for non-Russian Orthodox Christians in Russia, every move by the government to squelch religious freedom is another step toward making Russia an increasingly difficult place to live, especially for those Christians who are also already experiencing aggression in areas dominated by Islam.”
Open Doors research, which involves first-person interviews, reveals that in Russia “the brunt of persecution” is borne by “indigenous Christians who converted from Islam and live in Muslim-majority regions.” Because of a fear of execution, Russians often must keep their faith secret.
Laws Are Tightening Around Non-Orthodox Russians
Of the Christians in Russia, almost all (96.6 percent) are Russian Orthodox, and few have read the Bible or attend worship services. Russian president Vladimir Putin has used Russian Orthodox theology and thinking to justify his “imperial ambitions,” according to some international experts. Any members of non-Orthodox denominations who attempt to conduct Christian outreach are often viewed as heretics—and even as “un-Russian, Western spies,” notes Open Doors. The Russian Orthodox Church is particularly wary of “sheep stealing,” or being robbed of its members.
Since 2012, when Russia fell off the World Watch List, the country’s lawmakers (the Duma) have been passing religious restrictions—some of which receive approval from the Russian Orthodox Church. Open Doors points to three examples of how legislation targets non-Orthodox Christians: An “anti-missionary” amendment is used to punish churches, an immigration law targets expatriates who use social media for evangelism, and members of unregistered churches who engage in Gospel-sharing face surveillance and interrogation.
“An increase in state control has resulted in more tight controls for any Christian denomination seen as non-Russian, which means evangelical churches are often regarded with suspicion,” according to an Open Doors fact sheet. “The government continues to pass more restrictive legislation on religious freedom.”
Johnnie Moore, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Rights, says non-Orthodox Christians in Russia—including evangelicals—endure “incomprehensible marginalization and persecution from the government.” He adds, “It feels like certain leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church are…in collusion with the government in suppressing certain other groups.”
Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia: Religious Policy After Communism, says, “What we have seen in Russia since the Jehovah’s Witness organization was banned outright [in 2017] is without doubt the most severe crackdown on religious freedom since the Soviet era. In key respects,” she says, “it is uncannily reminiscent of late Soviet-era practice.”
Open Doors says the situation isn’t as oppressive as prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when “Christians from all denominations found themselves in jail, psychiatric hospitals or labor camps,” but there’s “definitely a clear and unwanted signal of possible difficulties awaiting [non-Russian Orthodox] Christians in the future.”