by David Sisler

In 1997 the Russian Duma passed a law ironically titled, "Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations." The law required all religious organization in Russia to re-register their legal standing. The law introduced a two-tiered system of religious bodies in Russia: "religious organizations" with full rights of public activities, and "religious groups" who are barely allowed the right of private exercise of their faith. In order to ascend to the first tier, the religious body must prove that it has been in existence — and officially registered — for at least 15 years. In addition, only those organizations who could trace their pedigree back 50 years would be allowed to use the words "Russia" or "Russian" in their names.

Under communist rule, church building after church building was confiscated or destroyed and congregations were driven underground. Except for those few who were in good standing with the government, entire denominations simply disappeared. When churches began the difficult process of re-registration, records detailing their history were either no longer available or had "mysteriously" disappeared.

It is not news that from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 until the early 1990s, churches and believers were the targets of intense persecution.

Christians were sentenced to mental hospitals for treatment because they were considered insane. They were diagnosed as insane because they believed in God and were "treated" (read "tortured") until they renounced their faith. In village after village the people were forced to attend mass meetings and were confronted with the question, "Are you with the godless or the believers?" Those who refused to disavow their faith were marched into cattle cars for shipment to Siberia. Railway cars were marked with the inscription: "Voluntary Settlers For Siberia."

When Nikita Khrushchev rose to power in 1956, believers hoped that persecution would be over. Such was not the case. Khrushchev began a new wave of repression against Christianity in 1959. Laws forbidding the instruction of children were enforced, and church leaders were routinely arrested. He set 1980 as the target date when he believed all religion would be eradicated from the country.

While religious services were prohibited by the communists, musical events were permitted. Believers organized "sing-alongs" which included hymns and other religious observances. They also held "birthday parties" which secretly served as Sunday schools for the children.

Then the heady days of "peristroika" gave birth to a new day of religious freedom and Christians again moved into the open air of freedom. A new Russian constitution was drafted and approved which provided for the free exercise of religion for the first time in 7 decades. Six years later the darkness returned.

Ruediger R. Minor, bishop for the Russia United Methodist Church described the ironic way in which churches under his direction were able to successfully complete re- registration earlier this year.

"The application for re-registration of the Russia United Methodist Church," Bishop Minor writes, "was accompanied with documentation from archives in St. Petersburg that gave evidence of the existence of Methodism in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. Those documents, letters, protocols, and reports ... give a lively picture of Methodist life in St. Petersburg and Northern Russia."

Those documents were not culled from church archives. They were found in police records and in other official government sources. Police informers sat in the worship services and took notes on the proceedings. Police officers arrested lay preachers because of their "propagandist" work. These official observations also detail the intense persecution suffered by members of the Methodist church.

Bishop Minor concludes, "Those documents gave ample proof of Methodism's existence more then 90 years ago. On this basis the Ministry of Justice approved the right of the Russia United Methodist Church as a ‘centralized' organization to register local churches in all parts of the Russian Federation, as well as the continued use of the word ‘Russia' in its name. The sufferings and hardships of those mothers and fathers in the faith turned out to be a blessing for their spiritual grandchildren. "

That is another way to paraphrase one of the greatest declarations to come from the pen of the Apostle Paul: "We are assured and know that God being a partner in their labor, all things work together, and are fitted into a plan for good to those who are called according to His design and purpose."

That is not only true of those persecuted Methodist believers eight decades ago, it is true in your life today, if you live your life in the confidence of God's care.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 3/13/99

Copyright 1999 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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