American preacher arrested for violating Russia's 'anti-evangelism law'

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) kisses Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill during an Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow April 23, 2011. | Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Baptist preacher Donald Ossewaarde has been tried and convicted of conducting a religious service in his home in Oryol, southwest of Moscow. Police arrested him for conducting alleged illegal activities such as singing, praying and reading the Bible with a prayer group.

During the initial hearing, the court did not wait for Ossewaarde's lawyers to arrive from Moscow. Instead, he was provided with a lawyer. He was indicted for putting up flyers inviting the public to contact him for Bible study sessions. The court said he did not submit documents to authorities pertaining to these religious meetings for which he was fined 40,000 rubles.

After the initial hearing, Ossewaarde said that his court-appointed lawyer counseled him to pay the fine and not ask for an appeal. The lawyer also warned him and his family that they were not safe there and it was best to leave the city.

Although his family went back to the U.S., the preacher decided to appeal his case.

The anti-sharing beliefs amendment was presented in early 2016 and was signed by Vladimir Putin on July 6 despite global criticism. Ossewaarde is among the first five victims of the newly established anti-evangelism law. Protesters against the legislation said it was not a government campaign against terrorism but rather a "draconian attempt" to repress religious freedom.

According to Russia's Religion Law, evangelism within one's residence is not permitted, except in cases covered by Article 16, Part 2. This particular provision states that "worship services, other religious rites and ceremonies" may be conducted without hindrance in residential premises (as well as in religious buildings and in premises owned or rented by religious organizations.)"

According to the Christian organization Forum 18, Ossewaarde did not post public flyers about holding religious services in his home but merely put them in mailboxes.

Forum 18 also said, "When the anti-sharing beliefs amendment was first introduced in 2016, it was unclear what this part of it would mean in practice. However, Ossewaarde's conviction for holding a service in his own home suggests that almost any religious activity in private as well as public space may be given a 'missionary' slant and little protection may be afforded by the Article 16 provision."