Russia's 1997 Law Renews Religious Persecution

By Dunlop, John B. | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia's 1997 Law Renews Religious Persecution


Dunlop, John B., Demokratizatsiya


In October 1990, both the USSR under President Mikhail Gorbachev and the RSFSR under Boris Yeltsin (at the time, chairman of the Russian parliament or Supreme Soviet) adopted new laws on freedom of conscience and religious organizations.(1) These laws revoked the draconian 1975 "Brezhnev" legislation on religion, which had incorporated much of the 1929 "Stalin" law, whose implicit purpose had been to eradicate all religious "survivals" from Soviet territory.(2)

While the two 1990 laws--adopted about a year before the final collapse of the USSR--contained flaws, they generally embraced an American-style approach to church-state relations. In the aftermath of the adoption of the two laws, something roughly approximating freedom of religion as we understand it in the United States came into existence in the Russian Republic, which had become an independent state in December 1991. Parishes of several Orthodox ecclesiastical jurisdictions in direct competition with the official Russian Orthodox Church (or "Moscow Patriarchate") were legally established, and Roman Catholics and numerous Protestant groups were able legally to expand their activities. Even religious organizations representing what Russian political leaders today refer to as "totalitarian sects"--Mormons, Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'i, and so forth--were able to develop their activity relatively unhindered.

According to a useful handbook (spravochnik), issued by the Russian Council of Federation in early 1996, the Moscow Patriarchate was able to expand the number of its officially registered parishes in Russia from 3,451 in 1990 to 7,195 as of January 1996 (that is, the number of its registered parishes more than doubled in six years.).(3) But the Moscow Patriarchate's Orthodox religious competitors were also able to broaden their activities. Thus the Free Orthodox Church under Archbishop Valentin of Suzdal' claimed ninety-eight registered parishes as of January 1996, while the "catacomb" True Orthodox Church had twenty-six (plus a number of unregistered parishes). The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad under Metropolitan Vitaly of New York had succeeded in opening five dioceses in Russia (although none of its parishes had apparently gained official registration), and even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/Kievan Patriarchate, a body execrated by the Moscow Patriarchate, possessed seven registered parishes in Russia. In backing new legislation on religion, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate above all wanted to rid itself of such pesky Orthodox competitors.

In addition, the official Russian Orthodox Church found itself in competition, as of early 1996, with 183 registered Roman Catholic parishes, 677 Evangelical Christian Baptist ones (with many more Baptist parishes being unregistered), 248 Evangelical Christian parishes, and 141 Lutheran ones. Islam, not surprisingly, boasted the second-largest number of registered religious communities--2,494 in early 1996, up from 870 in 1990--while Buddhism had 124, and Judaism, 80. There also existed, as of early 1996, 129 registered Jehovah's Witnesses parishes, 112 registered Hare Krishna communities, and 20 registered Baha'i groups. As can be seen, the 1990 Russian law on religion had fostered religious diversity in the country.

The Moscow Patriarchate leadership, under Patriarch Aleksii II (a high-ranking church official since the Khrushchev years), strongly resented the religious competitors, a number of which they saw as "foreign" bodies attempting to make inroads on their traditional religious "turf." Although the official Russian Orthodox Church evidently had difficulty tolerating an Islamic presence in areas of the country where Muslims had traditionally predominated, and while it was also prepared to countenance the presence of Buddhists and Jews--but again, only in those regions where they had previously existed--it was manifestly not prepared to acquiesce to the expansion of efforts by other religious bodies. …

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