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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Church Seeks Curb on Other Faiths

If the Russian Orthodox Church has its way, foreign religious organizations here will be banned from all independent activity, under new legislation now being prepared to go before the State Duma.

In a document obtained by Keston News Service, the Moscow Patriarchate proposed that foreign religious groups "entering Russia on the invitation of Russian religious organizations" be permitted to carry out their activities here "only through the religious organization which invited them."

"Independent activities by foreign religious organizations are forbidden," the patriarch's proposal stated.

It remains unclear just how much sway the patriarch will have in the drafting of the new law, however. According to George Law, who studies religious freedom issues in Russia, the working group charged with drafting the new law has demonstrated surprising support for maintaining the high level of religious freedom set forth in the 1990 law on religious activity.

"Interestingly enough, among the people who came onto the committee a consensus developed to keep going in the direction of neutrality -- providing some minor changes in the law, but ensuring religious freedom," said Law, who is the vice president of the Association for Spiritual Renewal.

The fight over religious freedom in Russia began in earnest when the country was still a Soviet republic. A law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations passed in October 1990 was widely hailed for its reversal of the repressive policies of the atheistic Soviet state, but in 1992, shortly after the law came fully into force, critics began attacking its lenience toward foreign and "non-traditional" denominations.

These attacks, which focused on the alleged illegal activities of Western evangelists, reached a peak in mid-1993 when both houses of parliament passed an amendment to the 1990 law banning independent work by foreign religious groups and individuals, including the publication of religious literature.

It was reported that Patriarch Alexy II met personally with President Boris Yeltsin, urging him to sign the law, but the president refused, blasting the law as discriminatory. The Supreme Soviet passed a revised version of the law in August 1993, taking some of Yeltsin's criticisms into account, but not enough to convince him to sign it into law.

The bill currently under discussion, drafted last year, retains most of the protections for foreign and non-traditional denominations contained in the 1990 law, but the committee, dominated by Communist Party deputies, could introduce restrictions on their activities along the lines of the patriarch's proposals and the dead-letter 1993 bill.

In an interview published in Sovietskaya Rossia this week, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, who has repeatedly expressed his commitment to religious freedom, said that the Russian Orthodox Church was under attack from foreign denominations, an attack he said was supported by the Yeltsin administration.

"False prophets reign throughout the country. Who is to blame? Unfortunately, the State Duma to this day has not passed laws providing priority to traditional religions. And such laws exist in almost every country. I believe the state should support the church morally and materially," Zyuganov said.

Zyuganov's words were echoed earlier by the patriarch himself, who told Nezavisimaya Gazeta in an interview published just before Easter that Russians, especially the young, "continue to be caught in the net of exotic preachers."

Despite such pronouncements, Law said he remained optimistic that the bill presented for a first reading to the full house next month would retain most of the protections of religious freedom contained in the 1990 law, but added that in practice the law itself will matter little, since religious organizations operating here rely more on their relationships with local leaders than on rules adopted at the federal level.

"In Russia there are many ways to skin a cat -- to keep someone out. It all depends of the kinds of relationships that are developed, and the particular strength of the Orthodox church in its connection with the local government," Law said.