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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Faith, Freedom and Law

Society and the press continue to debate the new Russian law on freedom of conscience and religious associations that was adopted by the State Duma on June 23 and approved by the Federation Council on July 4, but vetoed by President Boris Yeltsin on July 22. On Sept. 4, the revised draft of the law was presented by the president to the Duma. The discussions did not become any less heated even after the "presidential" text was supported by the leading Russian churches and religious communities, including the Catholics, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists and Pentecostalists, whose attitude to the law that was adopted by the Duma had been very negative. (The Russian Orthodox Church, the majority of Moslems, Buddhists and Jews supported this law.)

Critics of the new bills generally dwell on the preamble, in which special mention is made of the respect the Federal Assembly showed for Orthodoxy (and in the presidential text also for Christianity on the whole), Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The preamble, however, is not legally binding, and should rather be called a "lyrical digression." The main text of the draft is legally precise, and its chief virtue is that it removes the legal vacuum in religious matters that was created by the law on the freedom of religion adopted in 1990 by the Russian Supreme Soviet.

This law produced well-known contradictions between the freedom of association and the right of society to selectively support organizations that are of obvious benefit to it. I can now go out on the street, gather 10 signatures of "founders" and create, for example, an organization of sun worshipers that the state will be obliged in the short term not only to register but to exempt from taxes and guarantee the right of property ownership. Simply put, by investing in 10 cans of beer to give to homeless people for the "establishment" of a pseudo-religious structure, I can get millions from taxpayers' purses. Moreover, I can do this even being, say, a tourist from Madagascar.

The proposed new bill divides religious associations into two types: religious groups and religious organizations. The latter, in their turn, are divided into local and central organizations.

A religious group, as a rule, does not have the status of a legal entity. Moreover, according to Article 7 of the presidential draft, a group can be created for the common profession of faith to citizens and has the right "to conduct divine services and other religious rites and ceremonies, and also to religious study and religious education of its followers." After it exists for 15 years, a group has the right to become a religious organization with the status of a legal entity and a whole series of privileges. Article 27 of the presidential draft grants the status of legal entity on condition of periodic reregistration of those groups that have already been registered as religious organizations, but have not existed in Russia for 15 years. This means that no dissolution of religious communities, which critics of the draft fear, will in fact occur. However, only religious organizations (not groups) can found and hold religious buildings, have organized access to hospitals and prisons, conduct extracurricular activities in schools, create charitable organizations, engage in business activities and so on.

All this complicated legal phraseology simply means that privileges to religious communities will not be granted on the basis of confession (despite assertions of critics to the contrary who believe that we can expect green lights for the Orthodox and red ones for Baptists), but on the basis of their real presence in the country, prevalence and time of their creation. Any religious community that proves its right to exist by a 15-year stay in Russia, creates three local structures and has not been eliminated for breaking the law can receive the right to register as an organization. However, the government and society is in no way obliged to grant a group of believers a special status automatically, responding to the will of 10 "founders."

The status of foreigners and representatives of foreign religious organizations is a separate question. The new draft law gives the right to found religious structures not only to Russian citizens, but to "other people permanently and on a legal basis living on the territory of the Russian Federation" (Article 8). Foreign religious organizations, according to Article 13, can set up representatives in Russia either under existing religious organizations or independently. They cannot engage in direct religious activities just as the Moscow office of Daimler-Benz does not sell cars, but carries out research and representative functions. Article 20 gives foreign citizens the right to engage in professional religious activities, including preaching, in conjunction with Russian religious organizations.

If the new draft law is adopted, it will be possible to legally eliminate religious organizations that force the destruction of families, are disposed to suicide or refusal of medical help, obstruct children from receiving mandatory education, propagate war or kindle social, racial, national or religious differences. Given the orgy of totalitarian sects, such a norm could be borrowed by Western countries.

Thus, there is hope that the new law will finally remove the existing legal gap that has led to some absurd situations. Now the question is in the hands of the Duma. It could override a presidential veto and be left without changes in the law it adopted June 23, agree with the veto or adopt the new draft law proposed by the president. It is precisely this that the leading Russian religious associations are calling on the Duma to do, showing rare unanimity.

Reverend Vsevolod Chaplin is a priest for the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church and Society Secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations.