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Religious intolerance & oppression in Russia

Law "On freedom of conscience
and religious associations"

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A law with the above title was passed by the Russian Duma. It was signed into law by the President and came into effect on 1997-OCT-1.

The following text describes some of its features. [We have added a few of our own comments, within brackets.]

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[The preamble has some positive contents. It affirms freedom of religion; assumes that Russia is a secular state; recognizes the Russian Orthodox Church as having had a special role; respects other religions, and recognizes the importance of religious tolerance and respect. However, the preamble carries no legal weight.]

The Federation Assembly of the Russian federation,
bullet affirming the right of each person to freedom of conscience and freedom of religious profession, as well as to equality before the law irrespective of religious affiliation and convictions;
bullet assuming that the Russian federation is a secular state;
bullet recognizing the special role of Orthodoxy in the history of Russia and in the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture;
bullet respecting Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions, constituting an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia;
bullet considering it important to cooperate in the achievement of mutual understanding, toleration, and respect in matters of freedom of conscience and freedom of religious profession;

adopts the present federal law.

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Articles in this chapter guarantee freedom of religious belief, expression and association, for all citizens and legal residents, including:
bullet the right to have no religion at all
bullet the right to freely choose and change one's religion.
bullet the freedom from restriction by federal law "except to the extent necessary to protect the bases of the constitutional order, morality, health, rights, and legal interests of individuals and citizens and to secure the defense of the country and state security." [The right of the state to interfere on the basis of preserving "morality" appears to be a poorly defined, troubling provision.]
bullet the prohibition of religious privileges, restrictions or any form of discrimination.
bullet the right to avoid military service on religious grounds, and to substitute alternative civil service
bullet the right to keep their religious affiliation secret
bullet the freedom of prosecution of clergy who refuse to release information that has become known in a confessional
bullet the freedom of religious associations to conduct their affairs without government interference

They forbid:
bullet religious associations from recruiting minors
bullet teaching of religion to minors against their will and without the consent of their parents or guardians.
bullet public ceremonies or distribution of printed material in the vicinity of "objects of religious veneration" which "offend religious sentiments"
bullet religious organizations from engaging in elections or supporting political parties
bullet religious organizations can engage in religious education, isolated from the public school system

They recognize that:
bullet Russia is a secular state.
bullet There shall be no state religion
bullet Religious associations are separate from the state
bullet Religious associations are equal before the law
bullet Education is to be secular
bullet The government can declare religious holidays

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Article 6 prohibits religious associations within the government agencies and the military. It defines three types of religious associations:
bullet religious group: a voluntary association which functions without state registration. They can engage in religious services and religious education of their members, but little else. They cannot own property, hire staff or enter into contracts.
bullet local religious organization: a voluntary association of 10 or more adult members who live in a single locale
bullet centralized religious organization: an organization composed of 3 or more local religious organizations. It:
bullet may contain a coordinating body and/or an educational institution.
bullet can use terms like "Russian" in their name, if they have been legally operating for 50 or more years within Russia. [The Russian Orthodox Free Church, and many other faith groups, will have to change their names.]
bullet must have a name that identifies its religious confession
bullet must use its full name when conducting its activity
bullet update a record of its activity with the government annually
bullet must have been recognized by the government as a religious group for 15 or more years. [The status of some Pentecostal denominations, Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, etc. who existed early in the 20th century and were later eradicated is unclear]
bullet must divulge to the government its belief systems and corresponding practices, its attitude towards the family, marriage and education, etc.

A foreign religious organization "may be granted the right to open its representation on the territory of the Russian federation...[but it] may not engage in cultural and other religious activity nor does it have the status of a religious association." [The addition of the word "may" is distressing; presumably some foreign religious organizations would be prohibited from opening up a facility in Russia.]

Various religious organizations can be dissolved or prohibited from engaging in activity by the government if they engage in various activities. Some are::
bullet "incitement of social, racial, national, or religious enmity and misanthropy";
bullet "compulsory dissolution of the family;"
bullet "infringement of the person, rights, and freedom of citizens;"
bullet "infringement of the morality and health of citizens, including the religious use of drugs and psychotropic substances and hypnosis, and performance of lewd and other illegal actions;"
bullet encouragement of suicide
bullet refusal of medical care where health or life is threatened;
bullet prevent members from attending required education;
bullet requiring members to donate their assets to the group;
bullet prevent a member from leaving the association;
bullet encouragement of citizens to refuse to fulfill civic duties.

[Some of these clauses are very generally worded and could be used to close down many legitimate faith groups]

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Religious organizations can:
bullet establish and maintain buildings
bullet own property in Russia and abroad
bullet conduct religious services in churches, cemeteries, crematoria, hospitals, children's homes, homes for the elderly and invalids, prison
bullet public religious gatherings would be subject to laws governing "processions and demonstrations."
bullet publish, import, export and distribute religious literature and objects
bullet conduct charitable activity
bullet create cultural-educational organizations and educational and other institutions,
bullet establish mass media.
bullet establish ecclesiastical education institutions for training of clergy
bullet have international communications and contacts
bullet invite foreign citizens to come to Russia for religious activity
bullet "conduct entrepreneurial activity and to create their own enterprises"
bullet to establish contracts with their employees

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bullet Violation of the laws by religious organizations "incurs criminal, administrative, and other liability."
bullet Religious organizations that cannot prove that they have existed for 15 years in Russia can still "enjoy the rights of juridical person" as long as they re-register annually.
bullet Until they have achieved 15 years of recognized existence, they cannot:
bullet request that their clergy be granted deferment from serving in the military
bullet teach religion to their adherents or to create educational institutions
bullet teaching religion in the schools, apart from the general curriculum
bullet "have within itself representation of a foreign religious organization."
bullet own churches or other buildings
bullet conduct religious services in churches, cemeteries, crematoria, hospitals, children's homes, homes for the elderly and invalids, prison
bullet publish, import, export and distribute religious literature and objects
bullet "create cultural-educational organizations and educational and other institutions, and to establish mass media."
bullet establish ecclesiastical education institutions for training of clergy
bullet own property

[These restrictions clearly violate the preamble to the law, and the Russian Constitution, and a number of international agreements entered into by Russia. They are a gross violation of religious freedom.]

bullet Religious organizations that have not re-registered by 1999-DEC-31 can be liquidated.
bullet Two previous laws: "On Freedom of Religious Professions" and "On the procedure for implementation of the law of RSFSR 'On freedom of religious professions'" are null and void.

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bullet The full Russian text of the law, and an English translation are on-line at:

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Copyright 1997 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1997-NOV-14
Latest update: 2007-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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