Russian Religious Legislation: Taking a Giant Step Backward for Religious Freedom
by Dan Fefferman
Religious freedom in the former Soviet Union took a giant step backward September 26 as the State Duma overwhelmingly passed and President Yeltsin signed legislation making it nearly impossible for minority religions to spread their message to the Russian people.
As a result of international protests and appeals from leaders such as US President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, Yeltsin had previously vetoed similar legislation earlier last summer. He signed the slightly revised version, however, when it was sent to him after being passed by a vote of 358-6.
One of the most controversial clauses in the legislation says that religious groups must be present in Russia for 15 years before they can publish or distribute religious literature, or invite foreigners for preaching activities. Such groups cannot hold worship services in public buildings such as hospitals, senior citizens' homes, schools, orphanages or prisons. They cannot form educational establishments, found newspapers or magazines, and their clergy are not exempt from military service.
Only a handful of religious groups were allowed to operate during the Soviet era, with its official ideology of atheism, and therefore most Protestant denominations and all newer religious groups do not meet the 15-year requirement.
Supporters justify these provisions on the grounds that the Russian people need protection from the various religious movements that have been operating on Russian soil since the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy called the law "a step toward perfecting the legislation which secures and defends the rights of Russia's believers."
Critics say that the new laws result from an unholy alliance between the Orthodox Church, nationalists and former communists aimed at limiting religious liberty and ensuring that religion in Russia will not represent a force for change. Said Moscow's Evangelical Church pastor, Vladimir Zinchenko, "With this law signed, you can't really speak about Russia as a democratic country. If there is no freedom of conscience, that means there is no democracy."
Others, like US conservative commentator William F. Buckley, take a wait-and-see attitude. Noting that major faiths such as Judaism, Buddhism and Islam will face relatively few restrictions, Buckley opines that, "It is a pity that Russia took this step, but it is hardly worth the dither we seemed to have worked up." All well and good if you happen to belong to one of the faiths that kept their heads down during the communist era and played ball with the regime. But if you happen to be an Adventist or a Witness-let alone one of the newer religions which have attracted so many Russians in the last five years-Mr. Buckley's blithe assurances avail little.
The law in effect establishes a three-tier system for religion. At the top are the groups-Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and (in some provinces) Catholicism-which have existed in substantial numbers in Russia for at least 50 years. Among these, Orthodoxy is given pre-eminence. The second tier consists of groups that can prove they have existed in large numbers for at least 15 years. The third group is everyone else.
If the legislation is enforced, Bible tracts and public invitations to hear new teachings will be relegated to realm of samizdat. Several new religions report police raids to break up attempted meetings of the blacklisted groups.
Even Mr. Buckley's own Catholic Church appears to be suffering under the new legislation. Although some concessions were made as a result of direct pressure from Pope John Paul II, sources within the Catholic community indicate it is still not clear which provisions in the new law will be directed toward Catholics.
In any case, the vast majority of Russians, having been educated for 70 years that all religion is suspect and having little sympathy with any of the new groups, appears to support the legislation for now.
To make matters worse, pressure by outside forces, whether the US President or the Pope, seems to have an opposite effect from that intended. It appears that for the time being, change will come only if one of the partners in the current communist-nationalist-orthodox alliance begins to see that a policy of real religious pluralism is in the best interests of Russia.