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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Caesar Above God

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The recent expulsion of an American Protestant from the Russian province of Udmurtia -- 700 miles east of Moscow -- dramatized a trend that the Keston Institute had already been observing for some time. Russian officials have been growing more and more likely to treat Western missionaries just as harshly as they treat indigenous Russian Protestants. If the current trend continues, eventually both foreign and indigenous Protestants will in practice have the same levels of religious freedom -- ending de facto discrimination against Russia's own citizens. Unfortunately, this result will be reached not by giving more rights to Russians but by taking rights away from foreigners.

The new trend, which started becoming noticeable about two years ago, is strikingly in harmony with the cultural and geopolitical theories of a Russian academic recently elevated by President Vladimir Putin. Nikolai Trofimchuk, head of the religious-studies faculty at the influential Russian Academy of State Service, was appointed by Putin earlier this year to the Kremlin's Council for Co-operation with Religious Organizations. Trofimchuk's recent book "Expansiya" provides an erudite geopolitical rationale for state repression of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and other Western religious confessions.

Trofimchuk wants Russian state policy to put "spiritual security on the same plain as national security." In deterministic fashion, he sees effective missionary activity as almost always serving the political interests of the states from which the missionaries come -- no matter what the missionaries' own intentions. He echoes the accusation that the activities of American Protestant missionaries in Russia's Far East are part of a Washington-inspired plan to seize control of that area for the U.S. government.

Ironically, the new anti-foreigner trend in a perverse sense reflects a victory for the rule of law. Russia's 1997 law on religion is an anti-foreign document both in letter and in spirit -- manifestly intended to make life more difficult for foreign missionaries than for indigenous religious minorities. In practice, however, Keston found just the opposite during the first few years after the law was enacted. More important than the text of the law was the age-old Russian habit of welcoming foreigners while trampling on the country's own citizens. That habit was reinforced by pressure from Western government leaders, whom Moscow perceived (sometimes correctly) as being more interested in lobbying for their own citizens than in promoting equal rights for everyone in Russia.

On the other hand, the 1997 law flagrantly contradicts Russia's own constitution, which ostensibly guarantees freedom of conscience for all persons legally present on Russian soil -- be they native citizens or temporary visitors from abroad. By making actual practice more consistent with the 1997 legislation but less consistent with the 1993 constitution, the current anti-foreigner trend makes the establishment of a truly law-governed state more remote than ever.

The recent expulsion of American Protestant Craig Rucin from Udmurtia provided a striking example. Rucin was summoned by Russian officials and abruptly informed that he was about to be deported as "a danger to the Russian Federation." No specific evidence was provided for this accusation in that it was allegedly a matter of "national security." In interviews with the Keston News Service, Rucin and local Protestant leader Galina Aminova cited articles in the Udmurt press which they said were inspired by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and which called Rucin's work a front for the U.S. government. "They think my real aim is to change the hearts and minds of Russians so that they become more obedient to the U.S.," he told Keston.

To anyone familiar either with the evangelical Protestant subculture from which most American missionaries come or with the Beltway subculture of official Washington, such accusations will seem more than strange. Neither of these subcultures is monolithic -- thus somewhere in the U.S. State Department there probably are some officials who are vitally interested in the global spread of evangelical Protestantism. Somewhere in the evangelical subculture there undoubtedly are some people who think that Washington officialdom has too little power and should be given more. But to suppose that lovers of the Beltway dominate the Bible Belt, or vice versa, is to be deaf and blind to the political culture of 21st-century America. In education, rhetoric, tacit assumptions, tribal loyalties and ultimate commitments, U.S. Protestant missionaries in Russia typically have about as much in common with U.S. diplomats as Russian Old Believers have with Kremlin officials. One value that many in both of these American subcultures do share is a strong belief in religious freedom, which is more than enough to earn them the FSB's hatred.

Russia is also less monolithic than the FSB would like. In the Internet forum of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, one Russian reader aptly complained that Putin's new appointee Trofimchuk "is not concerned that foreign missionaries distort the truth about God or lead people astray from the path to salvation, but with how their activity is not in the interests of our state." This reader argued that "we must hold to the divinely revealed truth independently of whether or not the state approves it." That, of course, is the essence of the issue: Whether Russians should place Caesar above God. An increasingly powerful faction within Putin's Kremlin says, "yes they should."

Lawrence Uzzell is director of Keston Institute, a charity that conducts research into religious freedom [www.keston.org].