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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Real Religious Freedom

Recently, President Boris Yeltsin presided at a ceremony sanctifying a chapel built on Arbatskaya Ploshchad, on the site of the destroyed Cathedral of Saints Boris and Gleb. These two Orthodox saints -- sons of Prince Vladimir, who introduced Christianity to Kievan Rus -- were murdered 982 years ago on the order of their older brother Svyatopolk.


In attending the ceremony, Yeltsin acted in contravention of the fourth article of the controversial law "On Freedom of Conscience," which he had vetoed earlier. In accordance with the Russian Constitution's principle of separation of church and state, the article forbids official representatives from "using their official status to form any type of relationship toward religion."


Patriarch Alexy II, who before the ceremony had publicly criticized the president for nixing the law, was pleased in this case with Yeltsin and magnanimously accepted the gesture of reconciliation. Once again, Yeltsin strengthened, by his participation in a religious ceremony, the pretensions of Russian Orthodoxy as the official religion. And the president took a step, the symbolic meaning of which extends much farther than he could have suspected: Yeltsin could hardly have known that the double murder committed nearly 1,000 years ago represented not just a struggle for power between Prince Vladimir's heirs, but also an intrigue regarding plans to liquidate the Orthodoxy he had introduced and Rus' possible conversion to Catholicism.


Svyatopolk, married to a daughter of the Polish king, had encouraged the movement to convert Rus to Catholicism. Prince Vladimir imprisoned Svyatopolk for this, but later, after Svyatopolk ascended to the Kievan throne, he occupied a weak position in relation to Boris, who then commanded the main armed forces of the principality.


After killing his brothers, Svyatopolk called in Polish troops, which occupied Kiev but were repelled by a popular uprising and by Yaroslav, also one of Vladimir's sons, who had escaped the murderer's knife. Svyatopolk went down in history as "the Damned"; Vladimir, "the Holy"; Yaroslav, "the Wise." The murdered Boris and Gleb remain symbols of martyrdom for the Christian faith in the struggle against Catholicism, which, in Russian common parlance, is not considered Christian.


In 1991 and 1992, I was the only nonbelieving deputy among members of the Russian Supreme Soviet's committee preparing a law (still extant) on freedom of conscience and faith. I opposed the efforts to legally foist on the country the exclusive position of Orthodoxy; to saddle the government with responsibilities for supporting internal discipline in the church; to shield Orthodoxy from competition from other branches of Christianity, particularly from the "diabolical" sects. For this opposition, Bishop Platon of Yaroslavl, a committee member known in the secular world as the people's Deputy Vladimir Udovenko, called me an enemy of the Russian Orthodox Church, despite the fact that he was a member of democratic Russia.


At the time, the deputies, with fresh memories of religious persecution conducted during the Soviet period, tried to create a law that shielded all types of believers from the government's interference in matters of faith. We tried to create equal and fair conditions for confessing and preaching any religion, ancient or modern. But it turned out that the church and bureaucracy weren't striving for that at all. They were ready to unite, if only to prevent competition and cement their ideological monopoly.


Since then, much has changed. No owners of property confiscated after the 1917 revolution are recovering their property ... except for the church. Museums and medical institutions are being turned out of buildings to which the church lays claim. The fate of the museum in Sergiyev Posad, so popular among visitors from Moscow, is up in the air.


The moment has come to revise the legislation, and the church is attempting a revanche. In the preamble to the new law, there is mention of the special role of Orthodoxy, as Russia's historic religion, in modern spiritual life; in second place is "Islam, with its millions of believers"; then there are the "traditional religions" of Judaism and Buddhism. This division of religions into primary and secondary categories is unheard of.


A monopoly is being established on producing objects of veneration. No artist will be able to paint an icon without being licensed by the church, just as only specially licensed artists painted portraits of Communist Party leaders during the Soviet period.


The most interesting thing is the division of religions into organizations and groups. A group can become an organization only 15 years after it informs the authorities that it has become active. Only the clergy of an organization, not a group, may take advantage of certain rights, such as exemption from military service.


The situation will be especially difficult for believers of faiths based outside of Russia. They will have to present certification from governments of the countries where they are based to the effect that they are acknowledged as religions in those countries. Thus, the Catholics will have to present certification from the Vatican government (the Pope) to the effect that it acknowledges the Catholic church and its head (the Pope).


Perhaps Yeltsin will give the agitated world community comforting assurances in this regard before he signs the new version of the law after it passes through the State Duma.


We'll see what happens this fall.





Anatoly Shabad, a former State Duma deputy, is chairman of the Moscow regional organization of Russia's Democratic Choice. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.