Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All Faiths Are Not Equal in the Eyes of the Regions

CHELYABINSK, Ural Mountains -- Sprinkled with soot from steel smelters and crisscrossed with uprooted pipes, this industrial city in the Ural Mountains might not look like most people's idea of God's country. But to the 400 Russians here who have converted to Mormonism since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet state, Chelyabinsk is the next best thing to Salt Lake City.

Unfortunately, the regional Justice Ministry doesn't agree. For the past five years, ministry officials have refused to register the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a religious organization. Since June, church elders have filed five applications, each turned away for a different reason: a missing signature, an incomplete date of birth, a stylistic error.

"It's never anything substantive," said Tatyana Petrova, the group's attorney here. "I finally realized this process could go on forever. The real reason is not technical."

Complaining about human rights violations would do the Mormons little good. The region's human rights commissioner, Yekaterina Gorina, denounced the church in a 1999 newspaper article as "a strange neo-religion." She said that "disregard of the rights and laws of others is practically a national characteristic of Americans."

The Mormons of Chelyabinsk have plenty of company. In theory, the 1993 Constitution protects religious choice and considers all faiths equal under the law. But in practice, religious liberty in Russia is a patchwork affair, honored in some regions and hindered in others.

Under a 1997 law, only religions that can prove a 15-year presence in Russia or that registered before the law's passage can practice in an organized fashion, with the right to rent space, open bank accounts and invite foreign clergy. The remainder are tightly circumscribed.

Behind the new law stands the Russian Orthodox Church. About half of Russians consider themselves members, although few attend services. Patriarch Alexy II wants to reclaim the influence his church held before the Communists all but banished it from public life and forced its leaders -- including Alexy, some critics charge -- to do the state's bidding. Under Alexy's rule, the church has viewed some other religions, such as Roman Catholicism, as potential poachers on its turf. His objections have kept Pope John Paul II from visiting Russia. President Vladimir Putin said recently he would invite the pope, but with the caveat that relations with the Orthodox church first find "a firm footing."

On the whole, experts say the national government has tried to live up to former President Boris Yeltsin's promise that the new religion law would be enforced fairly, and not used as a club to crush the Orthodox Church's rivals. But the law is administered at the local level by regional justice ministries. And in certain cities, officials have seized on it to put other churches on the defensive or out of business.

In Moscow, the Salvation Army has been ordered shut down. Jehovah's Witnesses face a similar threat there. In an eastern city, authorities have closed a Pentecostal church with a missionary bent and 300 members.

In the southern city of Belgorod, officials have refused to register a Catholic parish as a religious organization. The local priest says Mass in an apartment while a tiny church, built by Catholics more than 100 years ago but now in the hands of the local Orthodox diocese, fills up with trash in the center of town.

"If you were to compare 2002 with 1995, there is no question there are more of these cases," said Lawrence Uzzell, director of the Keston Institute in Oxford, England, which monitors religious liberty. "By fits and starts, Russia has suffered a slow loss of religious freedom."

The Justice Ministry says that 18,130 religious organizations have registered under the new law, 1,200 more than were registered under the old one.

But Anatoly Pchelintsev, co-chairman of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, said that does not prove that the law hasn't unfairly driven out some churches, only that more have opened.

Denial of registration means a religious group cannot rent or own property, open a bank account, proselytize, publish literature, provide religious training or invite foreign clergy. This is a major setback to new faiths that must essentially start from zero. Other hurdles confront established religions, including how to recover churches seized by the Soviets or win permission to build new ones.

Moscow Catholics managed to recover two churches, one after a six-year struggle. A third church, built in 1845 in the city's center, lost its dome and spires and was turned into a cinema by the Communists. It is now occupied by a company that develops mining equipment, while Catholics worship in sterile auditoriums in Western embassies.

"To receive permission to build a new church is practically impossible," said Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Catholic archbishop in charge of the western third of Russia. "In Moscow, it is the most difficult."

The entry of foreign clergy poses another problem. With Russia's own clergy depleted by 70 years of repression, many churches rely on foreigners. Two of Russia's four Catholic bishops -- one German and the other Polish -- have been denied Russian citizenship and residence permits. As a result, they can't even open a new parish under their own authority.

The majority of Russia's 215 Catholic priests also lack residence permits, according to Kondrusiewicz. Although the religion law requires such permits, a different law says they can't be issued for religious work, he said. "It's a closed circle. It's a very big problem for us."

To be sure, compared with some of the former Soviet republics, Russia is a paragon of tolerance. Uzbekistan has more than 7,000 political prisoners, many of whom simply espouse a version of Islam the state considers a threat. Turkmenistan permits only two religions, according to human rights groups.

The U.S. government has said Russia's progress on religious freedom is a reason to lift trade restrictions, originally imposed in 1974 to protest Soviet limits on Jewish emigration.

Putin has spoken out repeatedly for religious freedom, and his administration is slowly working to cancel religious laws adopted by one-third of Russia's regions that are more restrictive than the national law.

For the most part, the Kremlin's interests seem more political than religious. For example, the Putin administration shuffled a presidential council to replace a Jewish rabbi with ties to disgraced oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky with a rival rabbi.

Yet the Russian Orthodox Church is clearly first among equals. The Tax Ministry, the Education Ministry and other state agencies appear to accord it special treatment, according to the most recent U.S. State Department report.

To some degree, the Putin administration seems to share Alexy's suspicions about foreign religions. Despite his statements for religious freedom, Putin two years ago signed a document on national security policy that vowed in part to "counter the adverse impact of foreign religious organizations and missionaries." Human rights groups say the Prosecutor General's Office has encouraged local officials to take legal measures against some minority religions.

In a July 2000 letter, Deputy Education Minister Yelena Chepurnykh warned schools against the influence of the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, the New Apostolic Church and the Salvation Army.

The groups, all identified as U.S.- or German-funded, use "religious cover" to collect social, political, economic and military information about Russia, to incite separatist sentiments and to create a generation of Russians who "would be steadily oriented toward Western values," Chepurnykh wrote.

The Education Ministry will not say whether the letter reflects the official view. But it does dovetail with Alexy's sentiments. He warned the public last year about an influx of "cults" and "pseudo-missionaries" who want to "steal the souls of our countrymen."

Officials from the Salvation Army, which began work in Russia a decade ago, say their organization could not pose less of a threat to the state. Active in 16 cities, it holds Sunday services, runs senior centers, delivers meals to shut-ins and feeds the homeless at train stations.

In December, the Moscow branch was ordered to stop all that. The edict followed an earlier court ruling identifying the Moscow branch as a military organization possibly aimed at the violent overthrow of the state.