Russia Restricts Religion

The Christian Century, October 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Russia Restricts Religion


The upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, took only several minutes on September 24 to approve Russia's controversial bill on freedom of religion. The chamber, composed of regional delegates, voted unanimously--137 in favor of the bill. The bill still needs President Boris Yeltsin's signature to become law, but since the latest version is a compromise that came from the president's office, it is virtually certain that it will receive his approval.

When the law passed the lower house of Russia's parliament on September 19, hundreds of Protestants sang hymns, chanted protests and brandished banners that read "Protestants Are Russian Too" outside the government building in central Moscow. A shaven-headed Hare Krishna devotee, wearing a saffron robe and holding a loud-hailer, led a crowd of his followers in chanting a mantra.

Though the new law has strong support from the Russian Orthodox Church, it has been condemned as discriminatory by Russia's Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as by human rights activists. The bill's supporters say it is aimed at curbing the activities of religious sects and the proliferation of foreigners "proselytizing" in Russia. In July President Yeltsin vetoed the first version of the bill after strong protests from the Vatican, Protestants, President Clinton, the U.S. Congress and various organizations.

The version passed by the Federation Council includes some substantial compromises, but it retains a two-tier system dividing religious "organizations" from religious "groups" as well as requiring a 15-year probation period before any "group" can be upgraded to "organization" status with more rights. Those faiths that do not qualify as "organizations" can apply for the status of "religious group" with fewer legal rights.

A group would be able to retain its own property, teach religion to its own followers and do charity work. But it would be denied access to public schools, prisons and hospitals and would not be able to set up its own educational establishments, publish literature or invite foreigners for religious work.

The Russian Orthodox Church's leader, Patriarch Alexsy II, confirmed his strong support for the law. "I'm convinced that sects and pseudo-missionaries are driven by the wish to sow the seeds of religious enmity in Russia, rather than to educate people," the patriarch declared while visiting Odessa September 23, according to Russia's Interfax news agency. "This is a source of danger not only for the church, but also for the state, for state unity is the guarantee of the future."

Leaders of Russia's minority religious organizations, who originally backed the compromise version, later withdrew their support, saying that presidential officials had not fulfilled the assurances given when they persuaded religious leaders to sign a petition of support for the compromise. …

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