Russia Condemned on Anti-Religious Law
In the Ossewaarde v. Russia judgment  handed down on March 7, 2023, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Russia for its law prohibiting evangelism in a private dwelling and subjecting all missionary activity to prior authorization. The European judges held that this law violated the right to freedom of religion, protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR also ruled that the Russian law constituted discrimination on the grounds of nationality (a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 9), as its minimum fine is six times higher for foreigners.
Ossewaarde was convicted of holding religious meetings in his home
The applicant, Donald Jay Ossewaarde, is an American Baptist. Since 2005, he and his wife have organized Christian meetings at their home in Oryol (Russia) each Sunday. Participants prayed, sang, and read the Bible. The applicant posted flyers about these meetings on information boards. In 2016, religious meetings of that type were banned by a new law "on combating terrorism" (no. 374-FZ).
Russian police officers arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ossewaarde on Sunday, August 14, 2016. One of their neighbors had complained to the police about a flyer advertising the meeting posted downstairs in her building. The police inspected those present at the meeting and took the applicant to the local police station. That same day, after a short hearing, a court convicted Mr. Ossewaarde of practicing illegal missionary activities. He was fined 40,000 rubles (around 650 euros at the time).
When his plea for appeal was rejected in Russia, Mr. Ossewaarde lodged an application with the ECHR in 2017. On March 7, 2023, the ECHR ruled that Russia had violated the applicant's right to freedom of religion and discriminated against him because of his nationality. The Court ordered Russia to pay the applicant 592 euros for pecuniary damage and 10,000 euros for non-pecuniary damage. It also ruled that Russia's anti-evangelical legislation should be amended to respect the right to freedom of religion.
The symbolic significance of the ECHR during the Russian-Ukrainian war
The Russian government submitted arguments to the Court in the Ossewaarde case justifying its anti-evangelization law. In particular, Russia compared its law with Greece’s law prohibiting proselytism. Russia relied on the ECHR's judgment in Kokkinakis v. Greece, which had determined that Greek law was valid in 1993. ECLJ has already criticized this judgment and showed that the Greek statute should have been deemed contrary to the freedoms of religion and expression. On this point, Greece has nothing for Russia to envy: both states’ laws violate these freedoms.
The Court’s condemnations of the Russian law are unlikely to have any practical effect. On September 16, 2022, Russia ceased being a party to the European Convention. Nonetheless, the ECHR considers itself competent to examine cases whose facts occurred before that date. On March 10, 2023, three days after the Ossewaarde v. Russia judgment, the Council of Europe published a communication "reminding Russia of its legal obligation to execute the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights". Yet, this communication is purely symbolic, especially amid the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Ossewaarde was represented at the ECHR by lawyers from Memorial, an NGO dedicated to defending human rights and preserving the memory of victims of Soviet rule, notably those who suffered under the regime of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. This NGO was dissolved by Russia in 2021 under the pretext that part of its funding was from foreign sources. The real aim is to suppress criticism of the Soviet Union (USSR), whose collapse is, according to Vladimir Putin, "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." In 2022, the ECHR condemned Russia for violating Memorial's rights to freedom of expression and association as a result of this dissolution.
Some reminders of the principles related to the right to freedom of religion
The Ossewaarde v. Russia ruling was an opportunity for the ECHR to reiterate a number of principles relating to the right to freedom of religion. At the European level, this right protects missionary activities. The judgment is worth quoting at length:
" 39. The Court reiterates that the freedom to manifest one's religion includes in principle the right to express one's religious opinions by imparting them with others and the right "to try to convince one’s neighbour", for example by "teaching", failing which the "freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief", enshrined in Article 9, would risk remaining a dead letter (...). The act of imparting information about a particular set of beliefs to others who do not hold those beliefs - known as missionary or evangelistic work in Christianity - is protected by Article 9 alongside with other acts of worship, such as the collective study and discussion of religious texts, which are aspects of the practice of a religion or belief in a generally recognised form (...).
46 (...) [the Court] reiterates that the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or of one of its aspects, including the freedom to manifest one's beliefs and to talk to others about them, cannot be made conditional on any acts of State approval or administrative registration because of the risk that a State would dictate what a person must believe".
 Ossewaarde c. Russie, n° 27227/17, 7 mars 2023.
 Kokkinakis c. Grèce, n° 14307/88, 25 mai 1993.