Derek H. Davis July/August 1998 Russia's Retreat From Religious Liberty

On September 26, 1997, Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin signed the widely publicized and highly controversial bill "On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations." This law, which comprehensively regulates church-state relations in Russia, is hailed by supporters as a landmark provision that will protect Russia from intrusive and unwanted religions and even from the core of a new national ideology to replace the atheistic Marxist ideology of the Soviet era. Critics, however, charge that the new law denies freedom of conscience, violates international human rights declarations that Russia has signed, and promises only to perpetuate the tyranny over religion that characterized the Soviet period. Because of Russia's role as leader among a host of former Soviet and Soviet-bloc nations seeking to separate themselves from the yoke of Communism, the law is profoundly significant.

What does this new law say, and why has Russia adopted a public philosophy that rolls back much of its post-1990 experiment in religious liberty?

The 1990 Law on Religion and Its Effects

Russia's new law on religion is a retreat from its "Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations," passed on October 1, 1990. That revolutionary law, passed in the liberal spirit of perestroika ("restructuring") and glasnost ("openness"), made "all denominations and religions . . . equal under the law," and guaranteed every citizen's right to "freedom of conscience." It declared Russia to be a secular state, prohibited the establish-ment of a state religion, and denied to the state any right of intervention in religious affairs. Churches and other religious organizations were permitted to freely engage in worship and mission activities, operate schools and seminaries, own property, and publish and distribute religious literature, all without the requirement of registering with the government.

The 1990 law actualized Russia's desire to usher in religious freedom. Almost overnight Russia experienced a phenomenal resurgence of faith. The Russian Orthodox cathedrals, which in many cases had been converted to commercial use or made into museums during the Soviet era, were opened and soon filled with worshipers. Other traditional religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, shamanism, and Old Believers (a branch of Russian Orthodoxy) experienced renewal. Christian churches, including Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal, along with nontraditional groups such as Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, the Great White Brotherhood, and the Mother of God Center, became a part of everyday life. Evangelists and missionaries from the West entered the country in surprisingly large numbers, and religious crusades, often nationally televised, became commonplace. The variety and intensity of religious expression on Russian soil was unprecedented.

Meanwhile, the Russian Federation, after years of planning, adopted a new constitution in 1993. A democratic document in every way, the constitution explicitly guaranteed basic civil and religious rights. Article II boldly declared that "the human being, his rights and freedoms shall be the supreme values of the Russian Federation," and therefore, "it shall be the duty of the state to recognize, respect, and protect the inviolable interests" of the citizen. Moreover, it specifically called for a "secular state" in which all "religious associations shall be separated from the state, and shall be equal before the law," and guaranteed the "equality of all persons" on account of religion. The new climate of religious freedom in Russia seemed secure.

It wasn't. Many saw the developments as disruptive, even chaotic, a threat to traditional notions of Russian unity. The Russian Orthodox Church feared religious anarchy and began a movement for greater regulation of religion. The church especially sought to limit the activity of foreign religious groups, to control their number, and to restrict their contacts with the Russian people.

Even before passage of the new constitution in late 1993, officials of the Russian Orthodox Church were working feverishly with members of the Parliament to pass legislation that would significantly alter the 1990 "Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations." From the beginning the proposed legislation was intended to limit the entry of new religions into the country, and to limit the activity of existing religions with international ties. In a 1993 draft, for example, it was proposed that no person without Russian citizenship be permitted to "engage in missionary, publishing, advertising, and disseminating activities," virtually eliminating the entry of foreign missionaries. A draft of such a law, in fact, was passed by the Parliament on July 14, 1993. Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexis II, in a speech to the Parliament, declared that the new law, if eventually signed by the president, "would open new possibilities for the role of the [Russian Orthodox] Church in the new Russian society."

The measure had many critics, including Sergei Kovalyov, the chair of Parliament's Human Rights Committee, who remarked that the law was "an attempt by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a centuries-long history as the state church, to once again gain a monopoly for itself in the country and once again claim a place near the leadership of the country." President Yeltsin vetoed the measure. The Parliament passed a revised version on August 27, 1993, but it was squashed by Yeltsin's veto because it violated international human rights agreements already signed by Russia. Renewed work on a law regulating religion began in the spring of 1994; it stalled, regaining momentum toward passage only in early 1997.

The 1997 version passed through three readings in the Duma, the lower house in Russia's bicameral system, the last on June 23 by a margin of 300 to 8. After the Federation Council, the upper house, voted 112 to 4 in favor of the bill on July 4, the measure was sent to President Boris Yeltsin, who faced considerable pressure to veto it. Many religious groups in Russia protested the proposed law, including the Baptist Union, the Pentecostal Union, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Free Church, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and the Old Believers. In addition, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to Yeltsin protesting the bill. The Russian president received a fax signed by 160 senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress, who urged Yeltsin to reject the measure as contrary to fundamental human rights. Influential international human rights organizations also protested.

After studying the measure for more than two weeks, Yeltsin decided against signing; he said that there were too many problems with it. He summarized his objections: "Many provisions of this law infringe upon the citizens' constitutional and human rights, legalize inequality between different confessions, and are at variance with Russia's international commitments. If signed in the current form, this law will inevitably lead to the isolation of Russia's traditional confessions and, most important, give rise to religious conflicts." Yeltsin, however, still favored a new law "to prevent radical sects from harming public health and morals," and he noted that the law was backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and by 10 other main religious organizations of Russia. He returned the bill, unsigned, to the Duma with a list of concerns.

The Duma had either to rework the bill by addressing Yeltsin's concerns, or to attempt to override the veto with a two thirds majority. It chose the former. Duma officials, Russian Orthodox Church leaders, and representatives of the Yeltsin administration immediately began work on a compromise. After almost two months a final version was submitted to the Duma. The legislation passed by 51 to 6 on September 19. The Federation Council approved the measure five days later, and it was sent to Yeltsin, who signed it.

The 1997 Law--A Step Backwards

The new law, if measured by the Russian Federation's 1990 law, is a significant step backwards. It contains discriminatory provisions that patently violate Russia's constitution as well as international civil and human rights agreements to which Russia is a party.

The preamble, while referring to the Federation as a "secular state," makes special mention of "Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions which constitute an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia's people." The document then elevates Russian Orthodoxy as the most significant contributor to Russia's history: "Recognizing the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia's spirituality and culture . . ." Though these statements are technically just ceremonial, if Russia is truly a secular state, and if all religions are equal under the law, why are such acknowledgments necessary? The Russian Orthodox Church is not the official state church, as it was for much of Russia's history. Thus it's significant that Russia's operative law on religion specifically acknowledges the special status of Orthodoxy over all other religious traditions.

The document creates two types of "religious associations" for all faiths in Russia: "religious groups" and "religious organizations." "Groups," while permitted to conduct worship services without state registration, are stripped of "legal personality." Consequently, they are denied the right to own property, construct worship facilities (facilities "are to be provided . . . by participants"), or even do religious counseling at hospitals, nursing homes, or retirement centers. In contrast, there are two broad categories of state-registered "religious organizations": those that have been in existence longer than 15 years and those that haven't. The latter, like "groups," may not obtain exemptions from military service based on religious reasons, create or operate seminaries or other educational institutions, print or distribute literature, affiliate with foreign religious bodies, or even invite foreigners to preach, teach, or otherwise participate in their worship activities. Obviously, most of the faith congregations that began functioning after the passage of the 1990 law would be so classified and therefore severely limited.

The barrier to legal status for "groups" and the limitations placed upon "organizations" without a 15-year life is unprecedented in Europe. Though many European countries afford different religious organizations differing levels of recognition, all of those countries that comply with the European Convention and with OSCE (Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) commitments make some form of legal entity available to all religious associations. Indeed, it is for this reason that the Vienna Concluding Document (1989) commits participating states, including Russia, "to grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their states, recognition of the status provided for them in their respective countries." The provision recognizes that the precise form of legal personality varies from country to country, but entitlement to some level of legal status, regardless of size and certainly without having to wait 15 years, is vital to meeting OSCE commitments. Additionally, failure to grant legal status constitutes a violation of religious freedom under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights because it can hardly be said that denial of entity status "is necessary in a democratic state."

Besides "groups" and "organizations," the new law introduces a third category, that of "foreign religious organizations." These are faith communities created outside the confines of the Russian federation. Because of the fear that "foreign" religions are subversive, they cannot have their "representatives" in Russia unless invited by a Russian religious organization with the permission of the Russian federal government.

The Federation's strategy is to control nontraditional religions that are either too unfamiliar or too small to justify their legitimacy, thus enhancing the prestige and visibility of Russia's traditional religions, especially Orthodoxy. Even fully credentialed "organizations" (those with lives exceeding 15 years) are threatened with extinction. All "organizations" registered before passage of the law have until January 1, 2000, to reregister, lest they possibly be liquidated. Moreover, courts have the authority to liquidate "organizations" for, among a long list of reasons, such vague grounds as "undermining the security of the state," "destroying the unity of the Russian Federation," and "disorderly actions." Almost any behavior deemed inappropriate by government officials might fall under these categories.

Explaining Russia's Retreat From Religious Liberty

The question is Why, after such a promising start under its 1990 law, has Russia enacted a new law that retreats to Soviet-era policies of religious repression?

One reason is the shock to the Russian way of life that came with the explosion of new religions after Communism's demise. The 1990 law was, perhaps, an idealistic vision of what Russia might be; it was, certainly, an overestimate of what Russia was prepared to become. Three quarters of a century of state policy that all religion is myth, that it is unhealthy for human beings, and that it must be repressed if not extinguished, did not prepare the Russian people for the explosion of religion that followed the 1990 law.

In spite of the rapid spread of religious practice during the early 1990s, signs indicated that religious freedom in Russia was more a goal than a reality. Many provincial authorities, less visible than the national government and less susceptible to human rights procedure, enacted harsh laws and regulations. According to London's Keston Institute, at least one fourth of the Federation's eighty nine provinces never accepted glasnost, and adopted measures restricting religious freedom. Many of these provinces ostensibly regulated "foreign missionary" activity, but in fact regulated all religious activity: preaching, worship services, lectures, concerts, meditation, and healing, as well as other forms of religious practice. In most cases, says Keston's Lawrence Uzzell, the measures were far more onerous than the national legislation passed in 1997. And although in 1990 Russia had dismantled the Council for Religious Affairs (the official Soviet-era arm of religious repression), many similar entities arose in the provinces, their mere existence being flagrant violations of Russia's 1993 constitution, even if the Russian courts have done little to curb their activities.

Beyond these fundamental problems, however, Russia's struggle to embrace religious liberty is only a symptom of a much deeper sociological phenomenon. Every political community, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) theorized, has a core set of religious beliefs that provide metaphysical meaning for the social and political community. In fact, said Durkheim, human society cannot function without such a set of common beliefs to justify its existence. Modern scholarship places a number of labels on this phenomenon
Article Author: Derek H. Davis