Religious intolerance & oppression in Russia
A 1997 law restricting freedom
Concern has been expressed, both by the Government of Russia and by the Russian Orthodox
church, over the increase in memberships of new and minority faiths in that country. Major
membership gains have been made by some groups, particularly by the
Witnesses, and the Mormons. A new bill was passed by the Duma
(parliament) of Russia on 1997-JUN-17 which would have seriously restricted the freedom of
new and minority faith groups in that country. It was called, somewhat ironically, "On
Freedom of Conscious and On Religious Associations." The vote was to 337 to 5.
The Duma has a working group on religion that is made up of representatives from all
major faith groups in Russia, along with members from the Duma and of the executive branch of the
federal government. The restrictions were believed to have been approved by a faction
within the working group. Others in the group (those who favor religious freedom) were
excluded from the decision making process.
If signed into law, the bill would have enacted sweeping changes to the original 1990
law that guaranteed religious freedom for all. It would:
||Differentiate between religious organizations, and religious groups. Only
the former will be given full rights.
||Protect the Orthodox Church as an "inalienable part of...Russian historical,
spiritual and cultural heritage"
||Give second class status to certain specified, established faiths, (Buddhism, Islam, and
Judaism). They would receive "State respect".
||Ban activity by missionaries from foreign religious groups, unless they first obtain
invitations from Russian organizations
||Deny status and rights to any religious group unless it has been operating in Russia for
at least 15 years. Only then could they register with the government. They would have no
guaranteed rights to publish, worship in public places, invite foreign missionaries or
guests, lease buildings, establish schools, have bank accounts, conduct pilgrimages,
distribute or import literature, hire employees, obtain deferments for clergy, or own
property. This would adversely effect the activity of the Hare Krishnas, Jehovah's
Witnesses, Mormons, Roman Catholic Church, and countless other sects and denominations.
The state will also strictly scrutinize their activities.
||Permit courts to suppress religious groups if they are considered to have promoted "religious
dissension"', or harming the "morality" or "health"
of people. These terms are open to very wide interpretation.
||Deny faith groups "all-Russian status" unless they have congregations
in at least half of Russia's provinces or have at least 100,000 members in the country and
been in existence for 50 years. Only then could they call themselves a "Russian
This law would be in clear violation of the Russian constitution and of the 1948 UN
Declaration on the Rights of Man. The restriction of rights on groups that have not
been recognized by the government prior to 1982 creates a real problem for hundreds of
well established faith groups. Religion could not be openly practiced in the country prior
to 1990, so few were registered. As a result, they might not be able to prove that they
have been active for 15 years.
Some comments concerning the 1997-JUN bill surfaced:
||The Keston Institute studies religious activities in Russia and Eastern Europe. A
representative, Lawrence Uzzell stated "This [law] would be the greatest
legislative setback for human rights since the Soviet era." He feels that the
boom in spirituality, which occurred during the early 1990's, has reached its peak and is
in decline. Thus, he feels that the Orthodox Church has little to fear of foreign
||Vladimir Ryakhovsky, president of the Christian Legal Center in Moscow, himself a
Pentecostal Christian, said: "This is interference by the state into the affairs
of religious organizations." |
||Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesperson for the Orthodox Church said that his
church would suffer a "violation of its rights" if a smaller sect were
given equal status to it. He commented that under the present liberal legislation, it
would be simple for an organization to register as a religion and then engage in "destructive
activities [such as] arms selling or drug trading." |
||Patriarch Alexy II, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia said: "We must
completely ban proselytizing. It is an attempt by unworthy means to lure people to another
faith from the religion of their ancestors." He stated that the activities of
his church's "enemies are growing...They include those who push believers to take
another split in the road and those who arrive from abroad with their different and alien
teachings." He described the bill as a necessary defense against "sects and
pseudo-missionaries" who threaten the Orthodox Church. On another occasion, he
said that the law is needed to curb doomsday cults which "sow the seeds of
||On 1997-JUN-23, The Fourth World Congress on Religious Liberty met in Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil. Attending were delegates from: the International Religious Liberty
Association, the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty, the
International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the Seventh-day
Adventist Church. The 400 delegates from over 30 countries adopted a resolution
calling on President Boris Yeltsin to veto the legislation. Some of the delegates
expressed personal concern over the bill:
||Duma member, Velrie Borschev views the bill as a major setback for democracy in
||Viktor Krushenitsky, secretary-general of the Russian chapter of the
Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) stated that the proposed law does not
with the country's constitution, nor with the international documents...[It is a] major
setback to reforms which uphold freedom of religion to each and every faith." Their
Russian chapter has requested the Duma to discuss the bill with religious organizations
||Concerns have also been voiced by the Baptist World Alliance, Roman Catholic Church, the
Seventh-day Adventists, and others.|
||The US Congress has threatened to cut off $270 million on aid to Russia if the bill is
President Yeltsin vetoed the bill on 1997-JUL-22. He sent it back to the Duma for a
re-write. Patriarch Alexy severely criticized President Yeltsin for this action.
1997-SEP: Yeltsin signs revised bill
The Duma revised the bill and passed it again in 1997-SEP, by a vote of 358 to 6. The
upper house approved the legislation on SEP-24 by a vote of 137 to 0. US Vice-President Al
Gore was in Moscow attempting to convince President Yeltsin to veto the new bill. He was
unsuccessful; President Yeltsin signed it into law on 1997-SEP-26 as RF Law No. 125-F3. He
felt that it was necessary "to defend the moral and spiritual health of Russia"
from destructive cults such as the Aum Shinri Kyo. See:
excerpts from the 1997 law.
Public opinion appears to be solidly in favor of the bill. Although only a few percent
of Russian adults regularly attend Orthodox church services, about 45% of ethnic Russians
identify themselves as Orthodox believers. Legislators received countless letters from
citizens worried about destructive and
cults invading Russian and destroying its families. Citizens have apparently been taught
to associate benign religious groups such as the Baptists, Mormons etc. with doomsday,
The new version involves only cosmetic changes to the original proposal. It continues
to enshrine the Russian Orthodox denomination as the pre-eminent religion, and to assign
second-class status to Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and other Christian denominations. All
other faith groups, including Roman Catholicism, would be severely restricted. Faith
groups would have prove that they have been recognized by the Government for 15 years
before they can publish or distribute religious literature or invite speakers from outside
the country. They would not be permitted to hold worship services in hospitals, senior
citizens' homes, schools, orphanages, prisons, etc. They would not be able to form
educational establishments or magazines. Their clergy would not be exempt from military
Unfortunately, most faith groups in Russia were denied recognition by the
Communist government before 1991. Even though they may have been established for many
decades, they would be considered as virtually new groups under this bill. One of the few
exceptions among Christian groups would be the Roman Catholic parishes of Moscow and St.
Petersburg. The Soviet government had recognized them prior to 1991. However, a strict
interpretation of the law could shut down the remaining 148 Roman Catholic parishes
Viktor Zorkaltsev, chairman of the parliament's committee for religion and public
organizations said: "The law protects the traditional Russian religion, Orthodoxy,
so we believe it undoubted must be adopted. It creates a barrier for totalitarian sects
and limits the activity of foreign missionaries."
Metropolitan Kirill is head of the Department of External Church Relations
(DECR) of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. He said
that the bill had now been revised in two main respects. The preamble to the bill now
mentions "Christianity" rather than simply Orthodox
Christianity as being one of Russia's
religious traditions, alongside Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Also, he said that the clause
requiring new religious organizations to undertake a 15-year probationary period before
being registered with the government would not be applied as rigorously to religious
bodies already established in Russia.
With regards to the 15 year probationary period, Metropolitan Kirill stated that if it
becomes clear that these faith groups: "…do not put bombs in public palaces,
do not kidnap children from their parents and do not break up families, then they [will]
have the right to be registered legally."
President Yeltsin signed the bill into law on 1997-SEP-26.
Responses to the new law:
Local officials began to apply the bill even before it was signed into law. In
Belgorod, a Roman Catholic priest was prevented from holding mass. Religious
minorities were concerned that
discrimination by local authorities would worsen throughout the country. Protestant and
Roman Catholic groups were expected to challenge the law in Russian courts.
||Vladimir Zinchenko, minister
of Moscow's Evangelical Christian Church commented: "With this law signed,
you can't really speak about Russia as a democratic country. If there is no freedom of
conscience, that means there is no democracy."
||Lawrence Uzzell of the Keston Institute said that local authorities could see it "as
open season on foreign religions…[the bill is] the most aggressive rollback of human
rights since the birth of post-Soviet Russia."
||The Vatican issued a statement which stated, in part:
"The Law does not fully respect the commitments, which among other things have
been sanctioned by various international conventions on human rights, fundamental freedoms
and the protection of ethnic and religious minorities, and which are in force within the
confines of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, particularly the Final Document of Vienna
in 1989, documents and conventions to which the Russian Federation has formally
||In 1999-FEB, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II told the Itar-Tass news agency:
Patriarch could not fail to note there is a certain danger from pseudo-religions, from
spiritually alien 'conquistadors' who are ruining, willingly or unwillingly, the spiritual
integrity of Russian society."
||Some deputies of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, (PACE)
planned to discuss the Russian law at the next PACE session. They believe
that the law violates the European Convention on Human Rights, the "obligations
which Russia assumed when it joined the Council of Europe, and its own Constitution."
The issue may be subsequently forwarded to the Committee of Ministers of the Council
of Europe for further discussion. 2
||A critical and damning analysis of the new law by was presented before the
Helsinki Commission by the president of the Law and Liberty Trust at the
Commission's regional meeting in Philadelphia PA, 1997-DEC-5. 3
The International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief
publishes a list
of news items relating to the Russian religious situation. 4,5
There have been a number of instances of harassment of religious groups in Russia by
local authorities. Some are:
||A Pentecostal congregation in the Semnadtsat (about 25 miles west of Moscow)
was expelled from the local school where they had been holding services every Sunday. The
local authorities had unilaterally cancelled a rental agreement, citing both the new
federal legislation under debate at the time, and complaints by the local Russian Orthodox
church. Their services were then held in the street near the school.
||The Salvation Army in St. Petersburg was notified on 1997-SEP-29 (3 days before
the law came into effect) that it will be expelled from two meeting halls which it had
been renting. The city unilaterally cancelled the contract which was to have lasted until
the end of the year. The Salvation Army has been in Russia since before 1917.
||The The Evangelical Lutheran Mission of Khakassia (ELMK) received a note on
1997-SEP-30 (one day before the law came into effect) canceling its registration as a
religious organization. They had been active for two years. Lutheranism has been in Russia
for 420 years.
||The Seventh Day Adventist Church
reported a bombing of their church in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 1997-NOV-7. It caused limited
damage. The attack is apparently in response to SDA gospel outreach programs in that city.
The hall that they had rented for the meetings was closed. Meetings continue at another
||The Seventh day Adventists had obtained permission to hold outreach meetings in
Bazuluk in the Urals. But they were subsequently banned under the new law. The official
reasoned that since no Adventist Church existed in Bazuluk, that meetings could not be
legally held. They would have to register locally, wait 15 years and then hold their
||The Keston News Service reported in 1997-NOV that foreign priests and nuns of the Roman
Catholic church were being issued visas lasting only for three months, instead of
the normal full year. They must return to their home country before being able to apply
for a new visa.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
The full statement by the Vatican is available at: http://www.religfreedom.org/
Vitaly Dymarsky, "New Russian Law on Religion...", RIA Novosti news
L.B. Homer, "The New Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious
Organization", International Law Group, P.C. Law and Liberty Trust http://www.law.byu.edu.
The International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief maintains a
"Freedom Watch" which includes many references to the Russian situation. See: http://www.religfreedom.org/
Freedom Watch Supplement is a list of recent news on the Russian
religious situation. See: http://www.law.byu.edu./
Copyright © 1997 to 2007 incl. by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson