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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stifling the Unorthodox

In the Tula region, 200 kilometers south of Moscow, Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Pavel Zubkov wanted to rent an auditorium for a worship service. He was told that the regional government would let him do so only if he got the consent of the local Russian Orthodox priest.

Russia's 1993 constitution guarantees religious freedom to all -- at least on paper. But in fact, Russians have less religious freedom today than when the constitution was adopted. Away from the scrutiny of the Moscow press, roughly one-fourth of the country's provinces have adopted flagrantly unconstitutional measures which restrict the rights of religious minorities. The rapid spread of such measures, and the courts' failure to curb them, suggest that Russia is not even trying to become a state governed by law.

These new provincial laws often purport to regulate "foreign missionaries," but also apply to citizens who are as Russian as Boris Yeltsin but belong to minority faiths. An executive order in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow, denies accreditation to religious groups which are "structural subunits of foreign religious organizations located outside the borders of the Russian Federation" -- language which could easily be interpreted to cover all Roman Catholics.

Provincial governments often control nearly all venues suitable for large gatherings, such as cinemas. Increasingly, provinces forbid the rental of such sites to religious groups. The Udmurt Republic, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow, bars religious activities even in privately owned institutions of culture, art or sport. The result is to make second-class citizens of minority religious believers who do not possess their own pre-revolutionary church buildings.

Another tactic is to create complicated systems of "accreditation." In the name of regulating foreign-based churches, secular officials have seized broad powers to impose regulations on foreign and domestic clergy alike, and even on rank-and-file lay believers. Some of the new laws define the word "missionary" so broadly as to embrace virtually any committed member of a religious group which calls on its adherents to proclaim its teachings publicly -- as do all forms of Christianity. The Udmurt law defines as "missionary activity," subject to special regulations, "the dissemination of religious doctrine among other-believing and non-believing citizens with the goal of drawing them into religious formations ... by various means: preaching, propaganda and educational work, the organization of collective worship services, religious rituals and ceremonies, individual work and other forms of activity." These so-called "missionaries" must file detailed reports about their beliefs and activities, and pay fees for "accreditation" to practice what is supposed to be a constitutional right.

Russian Orthodox believers, however, are often exempted. Legislation under consideration in the Yaroslavl region, northeast of Moscow, exempts so-called "traditional religions," defined as those "historically continuous among a large part of the populace," as distinct from "sects," which are religious groups with "beliefs different from the teachings of the traditional religions." A law in the Sverdlovsk region, in the central Urals, exempts the Orthodox and five other specifically named confessions, but not the Baptists, despite their century-long presence in Russia.

The new laws treat accreditation as a privilege usually valid for only one year, giving the authorities wide scope to ban activities which are inconvenient to themselves or their political allies. Often a church's accreditation can be revoked if it "ignites religious dissension" or "encourages citizens to refuse to carry out their civic or family obligations." Such provisions can easily be used against groups which publicly disagree with Russian traditions such as the veneration of icons, or which promote monastic life or conscientious objection to military service. The bill now under consideration in Yaroslavl would even forbid churches from "violating generally accepted norms of behavior" or "practicing individual or mass religious 'healing'." Believers could thus find themselves in trouble if they follow the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues or the ancient Christian sacrament of unction for the sick.

Compounding these dangers is the reappearance of government agencies whose mission is to control religious life in the interests of the state.

The very existence of these bodies violates Russia's 1990 law abolishing the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs and forbidding the creation of other such organs. But now they are growing rapidly in the provinces, often led by the same KGB informers who used to run the Council for Religious Affairs. The Sverdlovsk region's council is authorized to evaluate a church's doctrines and its attitudes toward Russian traditions, to gather information on it from other sources, and to evaluate "the social-psychological consequences" of its activities.

Ominously, the provinces have shown a clear trend toward increasing harshness over the last two years. For example, the "expert councils" to supervise religious life are granted detailed, formal mandates in this year's Sverdlovsk and Udmurt legislation, unlike the 1994 measures from Tver and Tula.

Religious freedom is as important for agnostics or atheists as for believers, perhaps even more so when many are trying to harness a warped form of Orthodox Christianity as a new "state ideology."

Minorities of every kind -- ethnic, cultural, political -- will be less secure if the provinces continue to get away with restricting religious minorities. If President Yeltsin's appointees in both the judicial and executive branches take their own constitution seriously, they will stop ignoring this assault on human rights, and start resisting it.

Lawrence Uzzell is Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, an independent research center based in Oxford, England, which studies religious life in Russia and Eastern Europe.