Pray for It: Religious Freedom in Russia

By Gaffney, Edward McGlynn, Jr. | Commonweal, May 7, 1993 | Go to article overview

Pray for It: Religious Freedom in Russia


Gaffney, Edward McGlynn, Jr., Commonweal


Five years ago on the occasion of the first visit of a Soviet head of state to the Vatican, Mikhail Gorbachev promised Pope John Paul 11 that his policy of perestroika or reconstruction would entail a new era of religious freedom in the Soviet Union. There was a great irony in this, for 1988 was the year in which Nikita Khrushchev had promised to display "the last living priest." Gorbachev kept his promise; in 1990 he signed a new statute that protected religious freedom in the Soviet Union. That represented major progress alter seven decades of Communist rule that did its level best to impose atheism as the official state religion and to eliminate all exercise of other religious convictions. Shortly thereafter the Russian Federation adopted its own statute, which was even more protective of religious freedom. With the collapse of the Soviet Union it is this statute that now governs in Russia.

Recently, however, word has drifted westward that changes were being contemplated in this important statute. For example, an article last month in Isvestia blasted the creation of a new Experts' Consultative Council on religious matters. Melropolitan Kirill of Smolensk condemned the draft outright, while the apostolic administrator of the Catholic church in Russia. Thadeus Kondrusiewicz, took more focused aim at new provisions requiring registration of religious associations with the council and regular reporting of their activities.

As it turned out, I was one of several legal scholars lucky enough to receive an official invitation lot a consultation on this statute from V.S. Polosin, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet's, Committee for Freedom of Conscience, Religion, Mercy, and Charity. Who could be against freedom of conscience, religion, mercy, and charity? And who could decline an invitation to join such eminent constitulional scholars as Harold Berman of Emory, Jesse Choper of UC-Berkeley, Robert Destro of Catholic University, Cole Durham of Brigham Young, Douglas Laycock of Texas, and James Wood of Baylot for conversations about these vital matters?

The answer to the second question proved easier than the answer to the first. I read the briefing book prepared by the sponsor of the American delegation, the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief, and packed my bags for Moscow. But the issues of religious liberty that we were asked 10 comment upon were subtle, and it was by no means clear as 10 who was trying to promote religious freedom and who was trying to control it, if not stifle it. Life can be complicated anywhere. but in Russia--as any reader of Dostoevski knows--it is more so.

I suppose it might be thought ungracious for a guest to wonder why he had been invited at all. Aware of the Russians' famous ability at chess, however, I did let the thought cross my mind that somebody might be interested in using us as pawns in a domestic struggle far more convoluted than met a lawyer's eye scanning a draft statute for legal difficulties. I guess that's the post-cold-war version of the old saying, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you?'

In the very week in March in which Russia was experiencing its latest constitutional crisis--which ended with two votes that rejected both the impeachment of President Boris Yeltsin for his attempt to expand the powers of the presidency and an effort to remove his archrival, Ruslan Khasbulatov, as chairman of the Supreme Soviet--a group of legal scholars and religious leaders from the United States met for three days with our Russian counterparts. The setting, ironically enough, was a villa outside of Moscow that used to serve as a retreat for the Central Committee of the Communist party. In these days of glasnost, frank and candid exchange of views within Russia has replaced domination and control of all expression of thought by central agencies of government. We certainly witnessed that kind of frankness and candor among our Russian counterparts. …

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