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Religious intolerance & oppression in Russia

A 1997 law restricting freedom

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1997-JUN Duma (Parliament) passes restricted legislation:

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 Jehovah's 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:

bullet Differentiate between religious organizations, and religious groups. Only the former will be given full rights.
bullet Protect the Orthodox Church as an "inalienable part of...Russian historical, spiritual and cultural heritage"
bullet Give second class status to certain specified, established faiths, (Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism). They would receive "State respect".
bullet Ban activity by missionaries from foreign religious groups, unless they first obtain invitations from Russian organizations
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 church."

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.

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1997-JUN: Reactions to the Bill

Some comments concerning the 1997-JUN bill surfaced:

bullet 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 missionaries.
bullet 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."
bullet 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."
bullet 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 religious enmity."
bullet 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: 
bullet Duma member, Velrie Borschev views the bill as a major setback for democracy in Russia.
bullet Viktor Krushenitsky, secretary-general of the Russian chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) stated that the proposed law does not "correspond 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 within Russia.
bullet Concerns have also been voiced by the Baptist World Alliance, Roman Catholic Church, the Seventh-day Adventists, and others.
bullet The US Congress has threatened to cut off $270 million on aid to Russia if the bill is approved.

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.

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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 mind-control 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, destructive cults.

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 service.

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 throughout Russia.

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.

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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.

bullet 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."
bullet 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."
bullet 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 adhered." 1

bullet In 1999-FEB, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II told the Itar-Tass news agency:

"The 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."

bullet 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
bullet A critical and damning analysis of the new law by was presented before the U.S. Helsinki Commission by the president of the Law and Liberty Trust at the Commission's regional meeting in Philadelphia PA, 1997-DEC-5. 3

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Immediate restrictions on religious freedom

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:

bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 location.
bullet 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 meetings.
bullet 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.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The full statement by the Vatican is available at:
  2. Vitaly Dymarsky, "New Russian Law on Religion...", RIA Novosti news service, 1997-NOV-7.
  3. L.B. Homer, "The New Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organization", International Law Group, P.C. Law and Liberty Trust
  4. The International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief maintains a "Freedom Watch" which includes many references to the Russian situation. See:
  5. Freedom Watch Supplement is a list of recent news on the Russian religious situation. See:

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Copyright 1997 to 2007 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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