Ministry: Improved U.S.-Russia Relations Could Help Church

President Obama's effort to build a partnership and overcome suspicion in Russia could do more than improve U.S.-Russia relations; it could also help improve conditions for the persecuted evangelical church in Russia, a ministry working in the country said.

"I think any time there is improved relations between Russia and the United States, that can certainly have a positive effect on evangelical churches," said Joel Griffith, a spokesman for Slavic Gospel Association, to Mission Network News.

Since Monday, Obama has been meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in an attempt to pave a new road between the two long-time antagonists. Although Obama was reportedly less warmly received in Russia than in other countries he has visited, he was able to forge a breakthrough deal allowing U.S. military transit to Afghanistan through Russia.

Medvedev and Obama also announced a declaration replacing a key soon-to-expire disarmament treaty that calls for the mutual reduction of Russian and U.S. nuclear warheads.

Yet despite the seeming progress in U.S.-Russian relations, Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association warns western missionaries working in Russia and other former Soviet Republics that they should not draw attention to themselves. Even if U.S.-Russia relations improved, he cautioned, religious freedom for evangelicals is not a guarantee.

"In some of the former Soviet republics where Islam is strong, you have growing opposition to evangelical churches even though they are national and indigenous," Griffith said.

In recent years, there have been worrisome signs that Russia might return to a "Soviet era" persecution of Christians.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice established a new body called the Expert Council on Religious Studies that is said to have "unprecedented powers" to suggest policies to control religious groups, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The chair of the Expert Council, Aleksandr Dvorkin, is said to be Russia's most prominent "anti-cult" activists, according to USCIRF chair, Leonard Leo. In a letter to President Obama dated July 2, Leo also wrote that Dvorkin "lacks academic credential as a religion specialist."

Under such leadership by Dvorkin, some fear that the Council will close registered organizations, such as the Evangelical Protestant community, and unregistered minority religious communities like the Council of Churches Baptists.

"Ominously, the Russian Bible Society was highlighted in a discussion during the first meeting of the Council," Leo noted.

This year, USCIRF added Russia to its watch list for the first time despite having monitored the country's religious freedom for ten years. The Expert Council on Religious Studies proved to be a major reason why Russia was added to the list.