Laws introduced in the summer prohibit “missionary activity” outside of registered religious premises. “Anti-extremism” legislation forbids and penalizes any discussion of religious belief with non-members, including within private homes. By Christmas, dozens of cases were brought against Christians and members of other religions, and though some have been dismissed, arrests and fines have been made in about half of all cases. Believers feel their communities grow in suspicion, and report being labelled as “cultists” or “foreign agents.” Churches are inspected, leaders are investigated. Lines of tension are drawn, and precedents of distrust are set.

Although this sounds like something out of a history book, the laws took place in the summer of 2016 under Russian law called the Yarovaya package. These laws increase regulations against evangelical activity and prevent missionary activity in “non-religious” settings, including privately owned homes.

The idea of Russia conjures so many stereotypes; bears, fur hats, nutcrackers, caviar, Cossacks and dolls in dolls in dolls. Or perhaps it’s Iron Curtains, Sputnik, the nuclear threat, Lenin’s raised fist, or in recent times oligarchs, tower block chic, Eurovision, contentious military aspirations and alcoholism.

Russia was birthed in tribal conquest and struggle, rose and fell under vikings and princes, khans and tsars—like any former empire, her past is scarred by triumph and shame. Once related to Europe’s monarchies, 100 years ago Russia withdrew and turned inward, away from the world.

An uneasy alliance through World War II fractured global relationships, Cold War tensions held sway for decades. Communism buckled; the West rejoiced. In the East, people were brought to their knees by national bankruptcy and a total upturning of their world. Rebuilding its pride, Russia has bullied its neighbors and cultural wounds have not healed. As with all histories, there is much more than words can convey. Russia is growing in presence within our media and finds itself in the center of a new controversy each day.

When Jesus said love your enemies, how does that translate to political ideology where our lines are drawn over decades of struggle and tension? As we consider our own ideas towards Russia, what reaction would rise in your heart? How do God’s people respond?

Pray.

We are called to stand in the gap, love our neighbors, disciple nations and pray for our leaders. Intercession lifts our eyes above our own surroundings and culture and helps us empathize with other image-bearers who are not quite like us. Through intercession, we catch God’s heart for the whole world, and He will put tribes, nations and situations on our hearts as we seek Him.

Look for opportunities to pray for other nations and peoples. We have the enormous privilege of being involved in God’s plans and fighting from afar on the spiritual front lines of world events; He has promised to hear from heaven and heal our lands.

Forgive.

If you heart resists praying for Russia, or for any other country or people, consider asking God to help you forgive this nation’s past and see it as He does. There’s no doubt that He sees much more brokenness than we do and loves infinitely more. Unforgiveness toward anyone or anything narrows our vision and our capacity to love as God does. It holds us captive to grudges, stereotypes and ghosts of past hurts.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we approve of what happened, but it frees us to love unconditionally. The good news is that Jesus has paid the price for forgiveness once and for all, His love does not run out, and He shares his heart with us freely if we ask him.

Explore.

Add fuel to the fire of intercession by finding out more. I use Russia as an example because it is so much in the news and on my heart, but every person on the planet is precious to God. Whatever country captures your interest: read their poetry, listen to their music, talk to someone who is from there, talk to someone who has been there, go there if you can.

What is life like for our brothers and sisters in that place, what facets of God’s character are reflected (however dimly) in that culture, what does God dream for that country? In prayer we ride the current of God’s beating heart for nations we’ve barely heard of.

In this age of “echo chamber” media it is perhaps more important than ever that we allow our hearts and our vision to be stretched and challenged by God’s global redemption plan and His boundless, unconditional love. God will help us get out of our comfort zones and pray for those we don’t want to love.