US missionary appeals to European Court of Human Rights over Russian law

Russian law: Missionary appeals

By ECLJ1513272221827

The ECLJ continues its fight to denounce freedom of religion’s infringements and acts before the European Court for Human Rights to ensure its protection.

Following the adoption in July 2016 of numerous laws imposing severe limitations on the rights of foreign missionaries and religious minorities on the Russian land,[1] the Federation of Russia appears once more before the European Court for Human Rights to respond to the Federal court’s conviction of American missionary Donald Jay Ossewaarde who wasfound guilty of conducting illegal missionary activities on the Russian land.[2]

The US Baptist preacher, who has been living in Russia with his wife Ruth since 2005, had held weekly Bible meetings at his home in the city of Oryol, 300 kilometres south of Moscow, for many years. The Ossewaardes received a visit from three police officers on the morning of Sunday 14 August 2016, as they conducted a service. They requested that the police waited until the service had finished, after which they were driven to the local police station. Donald J. Ossewaarde was then charged and taken straight to court. He was declared “guilty” two hours later and fined 40,000 roubles (US$640) for holding religious services at home and allegedly advertising them on the bulletin boards of nearby housing blocks. The judge said Ossewaarde’s guilt was “fully proven, since he carried out missionary activity without submitting prior notice in writing of the beginning of the religious group’s activity”. But Ossewaarde says he isn’t part of a religious group, while the law allows for “worship services, religious rites and ceremonies” to be conducted at home. He also denies advertising the meetings on bulletin boards and says he only gave out leaflets by hand.

This case occurs as multiple cases involving infringements of the right to freedom of worship and religion are being brought before the ECHR[3] by religious communities that do not belong to the Orthodox Church, dominant in Russia. It also takes place in a controversial legal context after the Russian Federation has passed on July 2016 the Yarovaya laws, named after one of its co-authors. These laws, adopted by the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, restrict freedom of worship of religious minorities in Russia, without yet affecting the so-called “traditional” religions.[4] Protestant evangelical foreign missionaries like Donald J. Ossewaarde are de facto more specifically targeted.[5]

The ECHR accepted the application of Donald J. Ossewaarde, whose internal appeals failed. The Court will have to determine whether the Federation of Russia violated the appliquant’s rights as ensured in Articles 5 §1 (Right to liberty and security), 9 (Freedom of thought, conscience and religion), 11 (Freedom of assembly and association) and 14 (Prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR is now issuing questions to the parties, mainly regarding the Russian legislation on religious freedom and on legal detention conditions.

The evolution of Russian law regarding religious freedom

The 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations[6] (the “Religions Act”) makes it mandatory for religious communities in Russia to be legally registered, creating three different categories of communities: the “religious groups”, the “local religious organisations” and the “centralised religious organisations”. To each one of these categories applies a different statute with various legal privileges.[7]

The “religious group” is the most basic unit. It has the right to conduct worship services and rituals, and to teach religion to its members. Such groups are not registered within the government and subsequently do not have legal status.[8] This is the category the Russian jurisdictions refer to in the present case.

A “local religious organization” (LRO) may register if it has at least 10 citizen-members, and is either a branch of a centralized organization or has existed in the locality as a “religious group” for at least 15 years.[9] LROs have legal status[10] and may benefit from rights and privileges not afforded to “religious groups”.

Finally, “centralized religious organizations” can be registered by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination. In addition to having the same legal rights as LROs, centralized organizations also have the right to open new LROs without a waiting period. After more than 50 years of legal existence, a “centralized organization” can use the term “Russian” or “Russia” within its official designation.

Foreign religious associations have the right to open offices for representation purposes. Although required to register in order to conduct religious services and other activities, many foreign religious representative offices open without registering, or avoid registration requirements by being accredited to a registered religious organization. By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”[11]

In 2009, the ECHR ruled that several provisions of the 1997 Law were not compatible with Article 9 of the Convention.[12] Such categorization of religious organizations indeed results in significantly favoring the majority church in Russia, the Orthodox Church, which enjoys a privileged status due to its predominance in the country for many years. This circumstance has been strongly criticized when the Yarovaya Laws were adopted, in 2016. Through these laws, the Russian legislation increases its control over religious activities in Russia, particularly those of foreign missionaries, officially for the sake of the fight against terrorism.

The foreign missionaries subjected to an increasingly restricted regime

Officially adopted as part of the fight against “extremist groups”,[13] the Yarovaya Laws introduce several amendments to the Russian law providing for a stricter legislation in the area of religious activities and cult practices of local communities.

This impacts more specifically the Russian non-orthodox Christian communities along with missionaries whose freedom is being reduced. The various Christian communities or other religious minorities are required to register and to be officially recognized by the national authorities as a religious organization to enjoy full exercise of their legal capacity. Similarly, foreign or national missionaries are to obtain a Government permit through a registered religious organization to carry out any activity.[14] As for the so-called “house churches”, they are likely to be prohibited since declared illegal by the law, and only religious activities or services taking place into registered and official buildings, such as churches, will be allowed. Any “missionary activity” carried out in violation of provisions of the “Religions Act”,[15] as amended by the 2016 laws, could be fined from 780 dollars for an individual up to 15,000 dollars for an organization. The Federal Code of Administrative Offences, as amended by the 2016 laws, provides for a more severe punishment when the offense is carried out by a foreign missionary.[16]

The new Chapter 24 of the Religion Law states: "For the purposes of this federal law, missionary activity is recognised as the activity of a religious association, aimed at disseminating information about its beliefs among people who are not participants (members, followers) in that religious association, with the purpose of involving these people as participants (members, followers). It is carried out directly by religious associations or by citizens and/or legal entities authorised by them, publicly, with the help of the media, the internet or other lawful means."

As legislation is getting tougher, the European Court is, once again, called upon to decide on the compatibility of the Russian legal framework with Articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention that enshrine freedom of conscience, religion and assembly, with particular regard this time to missionary activities.

Regarding religious freedom of foreign missionaries, the European Court makes a distinction between bearing Christian witness – which participates of one’s religious freedom and is thus protected by the Convention – and improper proselytism[17] that may infringe upon people’s freedom of religion for which it is carried out, and is therefore not protected under Article 9.

Thus, the ECHR, in the Ossewaarde’s case, asks the Russian Government to specify if the Russian courts draw a distinction between “missionary activities” carried out by a religious group and individual evangelism. As defined by the ECHR, bearing Christian witness “corresponds to true evangelism, which a report drawn up in 1956 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches describes as an essential mission and a responsibility of every Christian and every Church” while improper proselytism “represents a corruption or deformation of it. It may, according to the same report, take the form of activities offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members for a Church or exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need; it may even entail the use of violence or brainwashing; more generally, it is not compatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of others.”[18]

In the present case, private meetings and worship services that had been held by Donald J. Ossewaarde and his wife for more than 10 years, participate on bearing Christian witness as defined by the ECHR. Similarly, the fact that he may presumably have placed invitations to religious services on bulletin boards provides no justification to his conviction; clearly, such a circumstance does not amount to an improper proselytism act within the meaning of the Court.

Through its questions, the ECHR aims at highlighting the flaws, yet greatly denounced, of the Russian legal framework on religious freedom. However, even if the Court finds the Federation of Russia guilty of non-compliance with the Convention standards, there is no guarantee that the Russian authorities will implement such decision.[19]

The ECLJ, along with the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice (SCLJ), support missionary Donald Jay Ossewaarde and his family, before the European Court for Human Rights, and will submit observations to the Court on this case, in order to defend the rights and religious freedom of the Christian communities and missionaries in Russia against current legal abuses which violate human rights.


Anouck Barba.

[1] See and

[2] ECHR, Third Section, Application no. 27227/17, Donald Jay Ossewaarde against Russia, lodged on 30 March 2017, Statement of facts and questions, on{"itemid":["001-175890"]}

[3] See law/ and ECHR, Press country profile, Russia, November 2017, on

[4] According to the NGO World Watch Monitor, “The law is unlikely to affect the Russian Orthodox Church, to which, according to the Christian Post, 70% of Russians (and 90% of ethnic Russians) subscribe, but it will affect all other evangelical groups and denominations, including Protestants (1% of the population), Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses”, read more on:

[5] See

[6] Full version on: or

[7] See more globally the report on freedom of religion in Russia by the Observatoire de la liberté religieuse, available in French on:

[8] As such, they cannot open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces.  Individual members of a group may buy property for the group’s use, invite personal guests to engage in religious instruction, and import religious material.  In principle, religious groups are able to rent public spaces and hold services. In International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, United States, Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, on

[9] The ECHR ruled that the Russian rule on the 15 years of existence in Russia violates the European Convention on Human Rights, see].

[10] Thus, they may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, stateowned hospitals, and the armed forces, in International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, op. cit.

[11] See

[12] ECHR, Case of Kimlya and others v. Russia, Applications nos. 76836/01 and 32782/03, 1 October 2009, on{"itemid":["001-94565"]}

[13] See more on

[14] See ECHR, Third Section, D. J. Ossewaarde v. Russia, Statement of facts and questions, Part B. Relevant domestic law, on{"itemid":["001-175890"]}

[15] Ibid.

[16] Article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation No. 195-Fz of December 30 2001, as amended by Law No. 125-Fz of 26 September 1997 and Law No. 374-Fz of 6 July 2016.

[17] See ECHR, Case of Kokkinakis v. Greece, Application no. 14307/88, 25 May 1993, § 48 and ECHR, Case of Larissis and others v. Greece, 140/1996/759/958–960, 24 February 1998, § 45:

The Court emphasises at the outset that while religious freedom is primarily a matter of individual conscience, it also implies, inter alia, freedom to “manifest [one’s] religion”, including the right to try to convince one’s neighbour, for example through “teaching” (ibid., p. 17, § 31).

Article 9 does not, however, protect every act motivated or inspired by a religion or belief. It does not, for example, protect improper proselytism, such as the offering of material or social advantage or the application of improper pressure with a view to gaining new members for a Church (ibid., p. 21, § 48).”

[18] ECHR, Case of Kokkinakis v. Greece, op. cit.

[19] The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation recently ruled that a decision of the ECHR cannot be implemented in Russia as soon as measures aimed at its implementation would contradict the Russian Constitution. See

In doing so, the Russian Court applied a law, officially adopted in 2015, which allows it to review rulings of international human rights bodies and pronounce them “non-executable” if the Court deems they contradict Russian Constitution. See ;


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