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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Aide Threatens Restrictions on Religions

On the face of it, religious freedom in Russia would seem to be in good hands. A new bill being prepared by the State Duma committee on religious affairs retains most of the safeguards against discrimination first guaranteed in a 1990 law that annulled the repressive policies of the Soviet state.

Beneath the surface, however, powerful forces are conspiring to restrict the freedom of foreign and "nontraditional" religious organizations in Russia, including the head of President Boris Yeltsin's administration, Nikolai Yegorov.

At an April meeting of the president's Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations, which he chairs, Yegorov unveiled the draft of a presidential decree that would place new restrictions on the work of foreign religious organizations in Russia. Regulations for implementing the decree have also been prepared.

A draft of the regulations, obtained by Keston News Service, a Christian news agency, states that the authority to grant foreign religious groups "permission" to open a representation and to register officially in Russia lies with regional governments, not with the federal Justice Ministry, as at present.

The proposed change poses a threat to religious freedom because nearly one-fifth of Russia's regions have adopted legislation on religious activities far more restrictive than current federal law, and more are likely to follow suit in the current atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

The draft decree flatly contradicts the Yeltsin administration's more public line on religious freedom, articulated most recently by Andrei Sebentsov, first deputy head of the Russian government apparatus and one of the authors of the bill which may be considered by the State Duma as early as later this month.

Sebentsov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that legislation regulating the work of religious organizations must be consistent with Russia's constitution, which recognizes no difference between "traditional" Russian denominations -- a term usually referring to Russian Orthodoxy and Islam -- and "nontraditional" or foreign-based faiths.

"If inequality were recognized, this would already contradict the constitution," Sebentsov said. "Only one conception figures in the bill introduced by the government, as in the current law: 'religious organization,' or 'religious association.' The novelty or traditional character [of these groups] lies beyond the purview of the law."

Aside from the draft presidential decree, the second major threat to religious freedom in Russia comes from the Russian Orthodox Church itself, which has lobbied for the government to give official preference to "traditional" denominations.

Patriarch Alexy II submitted a list of some 30 "corrections" to the bill being considered in the Duma, and according to committee member Borshchev, the working group charged with drafting the bill "saw fit to include most of the Moscow Patriarchate's corrections in one form or another."

The working group rejected the patriarch's most radical correction, however. This stipulated that foreign religious organizations be allowed to work in Russia "only through the religious organization which has invited them. Independent activities by foreign religious organizations are forbidden."

The patriarch has frequently said the threat posed by foreign evangelists has diminished in recent times, but his language is nevertheless indicative of the church's aversion to foreign-based denominations.

"People have begun to understand both the insincerity of the majority of foreign preachers, who had no success in their own countries and came here to cash in on the spiritual inexperience of Russians, and the dark delusions of pseudo-religious false teachers that cripple the individual, the family and society," the patriarch told Nezavisimaya Gazeta in mid-April.

The logical counterpoint to these efforts to restrict the freedom of foreign and nontraditional faiths is a possible drive to install Russian Orthodoxy as the state religion, as it was in imperial Russia from the reign of Peter the Great onward.

Officially, the church has no interest in playing this role again. Metropolitan Kirill, head of the church's external relations department, told reporters last week that while the church had enjoyed great authority as the state religion, it lacked "real freedom." The primary task before the church, he said, was to develop a new model for church-state relations.

An opinion poll conducted in March and April 1996 by the Moscow-based Institute for Comparative Social Research bears out the centrality of Orthodoxy in Russia. 88 percent of those polled said they had a "positive attitude" toward the church, and 65 percent regarded it as "necessary."

Russians' overwhelming support for the church does not, however, translate into support for the efforts of Yegorov and the Moscow Patriarchate to restrict the freedom of other denominations. Eighty percent of those polled said all denominations should have equal rights in Russia.

Despite this lack of popular support, the Moscow Patriarchate has consistently pursued a policy of cozying up to power since the fall of the Soviet Union, and politicians of every stripe, with Yeltsin taking the lead, have courted the church with increasing vigor during the election campaign. Despite the politically charged atmosphere, Borshchev said he did not think the election would affect the bill's fate.

According to Sergei Filatov, a fellow at the USA/Canada Institute who has written widely on church issues, "the church's entire policy with regard to political power has been directed toward alliances not with individual political parties, but with the bureaucracy."

Filatov said the Orthodox church already enjoyed many of the privileges of a state religion in practice, because most every other denomination in Russia save the Moslems is discriminated against in some way. "This process of privileging the Orthodox church is moving slowly, but the whole development of the situation is leading toward Yeltsin signing a much more restrictive law," he said.

The signs are not all bad for the cause of religious freedom, however. George Law, vice president of the Association for Spiritual Renewal, a Christian outreach group, said the desire of the Russian Orthodox Church to exert greater control is no surprise.

"From their point of view, I am sure this is very consistent and logical, because historically Russia is an Orthodox nation," Law said. "But my expectation is that there will continue to be religious liberty in Russia." The root issue, Law said, was whether voters wanted the government to dictate their choice of religion, be it Russian Orthodoxy or some other. "I'm not sure that Russia really wants to insist on this," he said.