by David Sisler

"Ya sit pagorla," I said.

"Are you making fun of me?" Bonnie asked.

"No," I said. "Just for a moment there, I was in Zupchaninifkah."

We were sitting in one of our favorite restaurants, having saved room to share one piece of peanut butter pie (perhaps the second best dessert known to man the best is Bonnie's homemade German chocolate cake).

My wife smiled, not familiar with the few words of Russian I had spoken, but at the mention of a small village just outside of Samara, Russia, and the wistful look on my face, she understood what I meant.

On one of my first trips to Russia, I was eating with some friends from Zupchaninifkah, enjoying a delicious meal of borscht, cold salads and palmini (like ravioli, but without the tomato sauce). Alla, my translator, asked me if I wanted some more and I told her I could not possibly eat another bite. She said, "In Russian, it is ya sit pagorla," and put her hand, palm down, under her chin. "It means," she said, "I am full right up to here."

My reflections that night at the restaurant had turned, as they have so often recently, to a new Russian law, passed overwhelmingly by their legislature and signed by their president.

This summer, the Duma and the Federation Council, the two halves of the Russian legislature, passed, with only thirteen dissenting votes, On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. The measure was vetoed "reluctantly" by President Boris Yeltsin, who then submitted a compromise measure which was passed with only six "nyet" votes (all of those in the Duma), and he promptly signed it into law.

The new law, very properly, "recognizes the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia's spirituality and culture." However, the major thrust of the legislation seems to confirm and affirm the Orthodox Church's position as the leading church in Russia at the cost of many of the Russia's newly won religious freedoms.

Under the new law, only the Orthodox Church, and Islam, Buddhism and Judaism are recognized as "religious organizations" because only they have been registered with the government for fifteen years. Everyone else is categorized as a "religious group" or a "religious association," each with decreasing freedoms to practice their particular brand of faith.

All religious entities and I am quoting from the new law "which do not possess a document proving their existence ... over the course of at least fifteen years ... are not to enjoy the rights" of: (1) "substituting alternative civilian service in the event that military service contradicts his convictions or creed," (2) "creating educational institutions," (3) "teaching religion to children,"(4) "carrying out religious rites in health centers and hospitals, in children's homes, in old people's homes and institutions for the handicapped," and in prisons, (5) "producing, acquiring, exporting, importing and distributing religious literature, printed, audio and video material and other articles of religious significance," (6) "creating institutions for professional religious education for preparing clergy and religious personnel," and (7) "inviting foreign citizens for professional purposes, including preaching and religious activity in the said organizations."

The denial of each of these seven basic rights is seen by many as a direct violation of the Russian Constitution and some Russians point to as many as nineteen unconstitutional provisions in the law.

A small morsel was thrown to the hungry. When the various groups which are now denied these basic rights and freedoms can prove they have been legally in existence for fifteen years, they will be granted status as "religious organizations." For most, that is a decade away.

Because the Russian government's quick and overwhelming passage of the new law may have been fueled in great measure by threats from the West, it would be well for us to attempt reversal of this measure through prayer to Almighty God rather than through impotent politics.

Unless and until the law is overturned, Russian churches which are not officially recognized will have to take the lead in spreading the messages of their faiths within their nation, and that is as it should be. During my ten trips to Russia and my twelve months of living and working there, I said early and often, "What we are experiencing is not an American revival in Russia, but a Russian revival in Russia. We Americans are merely workers in a harvest prayed for by Russians for seventy years and paid for by Russian steadfastness."

Is this religious persecution? Probably. It certainly is not the freedom of religion we experience in America. Will it hinder the work of the Gospel in Russia? Only if we sit back and let Satan think he has won a victory instead of concentrating on how we can be effective servants within the law.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 10/11/97

Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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