While religious freedom is a fairly new concept for many of the countries in Eastern Europe once held captive by the Iron Curtain of communism, Christian ministry leaders in several Eastern European nations have been encouraged lately by the receptiveness of their countrymen to the gospel.
"In this part of the world that was held captive for years by the Iron Curtain of communism, people still feel the scars of an oppressive regime that denied them the freedom to serve God," Virginia-based Christian Aid reported.
However, the missionary agency said that once communism fell, there was a time of renewed evangelical activity. "Newly free to spread the gospel, native missionaries found many open to their teaching," they reported.
"Yet numerous civil wars, low growth of the sluggish economy, and resulting unemployment have hardened the hearts of many Eastern Europeans," the agency added.
Christian Aid also reported that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have "picked up the mantle of religious persecution where the communists left it," opposing evangelical groups in most Eastern European countries. In fact, in some of these countries, there are fewer evangelical Christians than there are in countries considered "third world."
For example, the country of Moldova, surrounded by Romania and Ukraine, was a former republic of the USSR and is now governed by a democratic constitution that guarantees religious freedom and, generally speaking, this seems to have been respected. However, according to the Voice of the Martyrs, the law contains restrictions for some groups. Registration, which is required by law, has not always been easily available to smaller religious organizations.
The compulsory registration has also been used for personal gain in some instances, VOM reported. In September 2003, two Methodist congregations were repeatedly refused registration, in part for refusing to pay a bribe to authorities. Other religious organizations admitted to paying bribes to the commissioner of religion and received their registrations. Those who refuse registration on principle, such as the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, have faced raids, including closing two street libraries in early 2003 and confiscation of the books.
Meanwhile, in Russia, once the center of Communist power for the world for more than a generation, a constitution officially allowing freedom of religion was adopted in 1991 with the crumbling of the USSR. However, that freedom is not consistently respected across the country, reports VOM.
Unlike most of the former Soviet republics, Russia does not have a central agency to deal with religious affairs. As a result, there is a wide variation of religious freedom, with regional authorities often harassing the non-traditional groups.
In 1997, a national religion law was passed, requiring churches to have existed in the country for fifteen years before being permitted to register. Without registration, churches are restricted to worshipping only in a facility owned by individual members and teach their existing members. This is particularly an issue for Baptists groups who refuse state registration on principle, remembering the abuses of official registration under the former Soviet Union. In September 2003, The Moscow Times reported on one such independent Baptist church having to meet outdoors in a city park, since they were refused permission to rent any public building. This requirement for registration was amended to allow for a re-registration for groups who were registered prior to the implementation of the 1997 law, including the Salvation Army.
Some Christian leaders in Russia have reported seeing recently what appears to be an increasing intolerance toward non-Orthodox believers. New visas and visa renewals have been regularly denied for foreign religious workers, including several Roman Catholic priests. When the Catholic Church established four dioceses in Russia in 2003, the dominant Orthodox Church accused them of proselytism. In October 2003 Protestant leaders reported ten arson attacks in the past two years, including Baptist churches in Chekhov and Balashikha near Moscow.
Yet, while persecution is still present in countries such as Russia and Moldova, Christian Aid reports that "native missionaries have persevered to bring the hope of Christ to their apathetic, disillusioned countrymen, and they are seeing fruits from their labors."
A native pastor in Bulgaria told Missions Insider, "Recently, we have experienced a revival in our churches."
The pastor said the revival began when a visiting pastor from Korea encouraged believers to begin daybreak prayer meetings. Now, 110 people meet at 5:00 AM daily. "This was one of the strongest things I have ever experienced-to see more than a hundred people praying strongly hand-in-hand before the Lord," he said.
He went on to say that many new people have been added to the fellowship, including some who had been adversaries of the church, even resorting to smashing windows with rocks. They, along with some of the community's most hopeless drunkards, have repented and given their lives to Christ.
A native gospel worker from Croatia also reported that there is a great hunger for the word of God in his country, especially among young people. Christian Aid reported that his ministry's street evangelism outreach has brought many to the Lord.