Jun 22, 2017

The Innocent Casualties Of Russia's 'War On Terrorism'

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks after his annual 'Direct Line with Vladimir Putin broadcast live' by Russian TV channels and radio stations at the Gostiny Dvor studio in Moscow on June 15, 2017.
Laurence Wilkinson
June 21, 2017

Mr. Wilkinson is a London-based Legal Counselor for ADF International.

Police arrived unannounced at the home of Donald and Ruth Ossewaarde during a small church gathering last August. Missionaries living in the Russian city of Oryol, the Ossewaardes had been hosting peaceful Sunday services regularly for over 10 years in their apartment. There was no reason to believe that they were breaking any law. However, when the gathering ended, three policemen brought Mr. Ossewaarde to the local police station and charged him with a number of criminal offenses. His crime? Conducting "illegal missionary activity" that was prohibited under Russian law.

In July 2016, President Putin signed a raft of legislation into law with the stated aim of addressing the threat posed by ISIS. The changes included an amendment to the federal law on freedom of conscience and religious associations. There was concern at the time that the law would undermine freedom of religion, speech and assembly in Russia, but it proceeded to pass through Parliament. Less than a month after the new law took effect, officials had shut down the Ossewaardes’ small church gathering in their own home.

While his wife returned to the United States, Donald Ossewaarde stayed on in Russia to challenge his convictions in the Russian courts – diligently documenting the saga in great detail on his website. Each appeal was unsuccessful, culminating with the Constitutional Court finding that Mr. Ossewaarde’s conviction did not infringe his right under the Russian Constitution to freedom of religion. His case raised concern internationally, and when a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe raised the issue before the Committee of Ministers, the Russian delegation insisted that Mr. Ossewaarde “enjoys freedom of religion and belief” in Russia.

Donald Ossewaarde was the first U.S. missionary to be caught out under the "anti-terror" legislation, but sadly his case is one of many that have played out across Russia over the past year. There have been reports of Hare Krishnas, Adventists, Buddhists, Orthodox adherents and others being charged, and in many cases convicted under the new law. Recently, the Russian Supreme Court outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in Russia – branding the resolutely non-violent organization "extremist." This led the mainstream Russian Catholic Church to condemn the ruling, despite the very distinct doctrinal differences that exist between the two denominations.

Many European countries are grappling with anti-terror legislation as they look to counter the evil of ISIS. In the United Kingdom, a recent proposal for a bill against extremism was met with fierce opposition from a surprisingly diverse group of society. There were concerns that the bill would “alienate communities and undermine free speech” but fail to effectively tackle terrorism.

As for Donald Ossewaarde, the human rights group ADF International supported his recent application to the European Court of Human Rights. He has argued that Russian authorities have violated his right to freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights. It will take some time for the European Court to come to a decision, which has forced Mr. Ossewaarde to wrap up his affairs in Russia and return to the United States. It marks a sad end to his family’s long-standing commitment to the people of Oryol.

The missionary’s hope is that that his application will ultimately result a judgment that paves the way for changes in Russian law. While there is always a possibility that Russia might ignore the ruling, Mr Ossewaarde’s application currently represents the best chance there is for Russia to change its position on its anti-freedom legislation. Those peaceful religious communities which are wrongly considered extreme under Russian law will be hoping for a swift ruling from the European Court of Human Rights before the situation deteriorates further.


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