Anticipating a new Russian law on religion, church and state specialists call for a legal structure that, while increasing legal order, will maintain religious freedom for all confessions.
The International Conference on Legislation of Freedom of Conscience and Problems of Legal Regulation of Religious Organizations, held in Moscow 12-13 January 1995, provided a forum for religious workers to express their perspectives to legislators on the drafting of new laws on religion in Russia. Sponsored by Moscow's Christian Legal Center and the Institute on Law and Religion, with assistance from Russian and Western religious organizations, the conference attracted over 100 participants from the Duma, Yeltsin's offices, various state ministries, independent research institutes, religious organizations of all faiths, and Russian and Western legal experts. Representatives of Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish faiths attended.
At the conference, the parliamentarian most identified with proposed 1993 restrictions on foreign religious organizations, Fr. Vyacheslav S. Polosin, stated that the Orthodox Church should join with and learn from its brethren outside Russia in order to fight the common enemy--a corrupt and unbelieving generation. Polosin maintained that competition from foreign groups will help Orthodoxy move from a pre-1917 Byzantine model of ministry toward more contemporary approaches to evangelism.
Fr. Vsevolod Chaplain, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Relations, stated that the Orthodox Church had determined that it was better to "be in agreement with" other Christian denominations than to seek to exclude them from Russia. He cited problems of mutual concern stemming from Russian society's move toward secularism, immorality, and non-Christian cults and the fact that 80-90 percent of the population consists of unbelievers. Though not representative of all leaders within the Moscow Patriarchate, Fr. Chaplain's comments reveal at least the potential opportunity for healing of rifts between Eastern and Western churches.
The conference took place in the context of ongoing debate in the Duma and among religious leaders on the need for a new law to replace the current 1990 law. Some support significant changes while others argue in favor of the current law. The latter fear radical and unpredictable revision when the matter goes to the floor of the Duma for debate. Though draft laws were to be kept confidential, parliamentarians have leaked various proposals. In particular, a November 1994 draft circulated widely in Russia and among Western legal experts. An overview and critique of its proposed changes follows.
The 1994 draft retains many strong provisions protecting freedom of conscience, equality of believers and religious organizations, and separation of church and state. It retains the right of any group of ten or more citizens to establish a religious organization (Arts. 3-5, 7, 10-13), and to operate with or without registration (Art. 11.2). Rights provided in the 1990 law that have been deleted in the 1994 draft include the right to change religious beliefs, to leave one religious group and join another, and to possess religious literature and sacramental objects. It also deletes prohibitions against the creation of state executive bodies to regulate religious activities.
Definition and Rights of Religious Organizations
Under the 1994 draft only denominations or churches would qualify as religious organizations. Parachurch and charitable organizations would have to register as subsidiaries of religious organizations, as public associations, or as charities under laws not yet enacted. This change would require reregistration for many groups and would also discourage interdenominational activities. Religious organizations would have the exclusive right to publish religious (liturgical and theological) literature and to manufacture religious articles (Art. 19.2). Only registered religious organizations could establish educational institutions to teach religion (Arts. 8, 21), sponsor foreign religious organizations, involve such organizations and foreign religious workers in their activities (Art. 15), and issue visa invitations to foreign professional religious workers (Arts. 15, 22).
Activities of "Nontraditional" Religions
The activities of destructive and "totalitarian" religious cults, such as the White Brotherhood, and of groups masquerading as religions in order to obtain tax exemptions, are addressed by Article 4 of the 1994 draft. It specifically prohibits religious organizations that insult other religions or violate public order. Most Russians at the January 1995 conference felt that trying to use general legislation to address these problems would not work and that the provisions would result in arbitrary application to unpopular groups. Conference participants discussed the need for adequate administrative or judicial review of decisions to ban organizations, and for new procedures to deal with abuses of tax-exempt status.
Religious Instruction in Schools and Orphanages
The 1994 draft deletes the current rights of children in preschools, orphanages, and boarding schools to participate in religious services and restricts religious education to the nonpublic sphere. Public schools would only make their premises available for use by registered religious organizations "on the request and in accordance with the religious choice of parents ... [and with the] consent of children" (Art. 8.4). Only registered religious organizations could operate educational institutions and would have the exclusive right to establish institutions for professional religious training (Arts. 8, 21). Currently, independent and interdenominational religious schools and seminaries may function.
The 1994 draft deletes the 1990 law's conveyance of a right for military personnel to participate in religious services. It speaks of a right to substitute civil for military service, but otherwise avoids the contentious issue of conscientious objection (Art. 6).
Rights of Noncitizens and Foreign Religious Organizations
Under the 1994 draft only citizens have the right to establish religious organizations (Arts. 10-13). "Foreign nationals and stateless persons" may exercise the right to freedom of conscience and religion only "according to their legal status of residence" in Russia (Art. 9). In contrast, under the 1990 law and Article 28 of the Constitution, noncitizens have the same rights as citizens to freedom of conscience and to form religious organizations. According to the 1994 draft, foreign "professional religious workers" may visit Russia only upon invitation of registered religious organizations and in accordance with governmental procedures not described in the law (Art. 22). Furthermore, representatives of foreign religious organizations and foreign religious workers may be involved in "any public religious activity ... only at the invitation and under the authority of" a registered Russian religious organization (Art. 15.3). This provision likely would curtail street evangelism and independent media broadcasts by unregistered visitors. This same Article 15 would permit registration of foreign religious organizations only under the auspices of a registered Russian religious organization. Representatives would have to be accredited by the government, in a manner not stated in the draft law. Accreditation would be denied for organizations violating Articles 4 (prohibited religious activities) or 10 (requirement of legal "recognition" by a foreign country). Foreign organizations may also form as "divisions" of existing Russian religious organizations, provided that they have at least 10 Russian founders. The term "foreign religious organization" would be limited to groups seeking to operate in Russia through a foreign legal structure and would not apply to indigenous religious organizations registered by the Ministry of Justice which have religious centers abroad, such as Catholic or Protestant churches.
Alexander Kudriavtsev, head of the Department for Registration of Religious Organizations, commented that many foreign groups operating in Russia "forget that they have to obey the law." He noted that while a directory produced by the Christian Resource Center listed approximately 400 Western Christian organizations operating in Russia, only 32 foreign organizations are registered with the Ministry of Justice. [Editors' note: The East-West Christian Organizations Directory is available from the EWC&M Report office.] The new law would make registration mandatory, which is not required at present.
In light of criticisms of the 1994 draft and other more pressing legislative matters, Duma members and their legal advisors concede that it will take considerable time to prepare a new draft. Even before the Russian government passes such a law, religious workers need to be prepared for incremental changes by decree and administrative actions. The Consultative Committee to the Parliament was reinstituted on 20 January 1995, under the leadership of Valery A. Alekseev, chief assistant to the chairman of the Duma. This committee will provide commentary to the Ministry of Justice on the beliefs of and the desirability of registration for foreign and "nontraditional" religious organizations.
Lauren B. Homer is president of Law and Liberty Trust, and chair of the International Law Group, 7002 Little River Turnpike, Ste. E, Annandale, VA 22003; tel: 703-256-2000; fax: 703-642-3841; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. An unabridged text is available from her office for $5.
In January 1994 Ukraine added restrictive amendments to its 1991 Law on Religious Organizations. A June 1994 directive of the Ministry of Education also curtailed activities of foreign organizations in Ukrainian schools. The January 1994 amendments disallowed religious organizations whose "rites and ministry are accompanied by infringements on the lives, health, freedom, and dignity of citizens" or which systematically violate laws on prohibiting public religious events. These changes followed the widely publicized call for collective suicide by leaders of the White Brotherhood, among other events. Also, restrictions on foreign religious workers in Ukraine now state that they may "engage in preaching religious doctrines, performing religious rites, and other canon activities solely in the religious organization at whose invitation they have arrived, and by official agreement with the state organs that have registered the statutes (regulations) of the relevant religious organization." In short, specific government approval is required before a foreigner may enter Ukraine to engage in religious activities, which has created a bureaucratic bottleneck and has raised the possibility of the exclusion of unpopular groups.
Following a brief "working group" study of public school presentations of various religious organizations, the Ministry of Education, on 24 June 1994, issued Order No. 198, which specifically bars the Unification Church, the International School Project, Accelerated Christian Education, the CoMission, and other mission groups from Ukrainian schools and bans Western religious materials and teaching methods. The Ministry of Education transferred ACE schools to the state system of education. Authorities alleged that the new measures brought Ukraine into compliance with its own Law on Freedom of Conscience and the UN Declarations on the Rights of the Child.
Another significant development was the abolition of Ukraine's Council on Religious Affairs during the summer of 1994. Its staff was fired and a new Ministry on Nationalities assumed its regulatory authority. Some speculate that this was a step in the direction of establishment of the Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, as a state church.
A September 1994 international conference on church-state relations sponsored by the Ukrainian Legal Foundation produced a number of recommendations. A wide array of Ukrainian parliamentarians, administrators, religious groups, and international experts attended. Recommendations included moving responsibility for registration of religious organizations to the presumably more neutral Ministry of Justice, and taking other measures to ensure that religious groups obtain their rights under the law. Many groups have found it impossible to register, including even the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Conference participants expressed the need to work cooperatively on common problems and not to look to the state for support. In the absence of a new system for registration of organizations and visa approvals, foreign religious workers have found it increasingly difficult to work in Ukraine. Additional Ukrainian restrictions on the registration of foreign religious groups as civic associations may be forthcoming.
Objections From Yeltsin's Office
"The head of President Yeltsin's State and Law Department, R. Orekhov, sees the November 1994 draft "digressing from the constitutional principle of equality before the Law of all social associations, including religious organizations (Art. 13.4 of the Constitution); restricting the right of people who are not citizens of the Russian Federation to confess...any religion,...and making representatives of foreign Religious Organizations directly dependent on Russian religious organizations' attitude toward them.
"The necessity to provide equality for ALL RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS before the Law has already been voiced by the President of the Russian Federation who twice refused to sign the Law..."On Introducing amendments and addendum to the Law 'On Freedom of Religions'...[which was] contradictory to the Constitution of the Russian Federation and generally accepted international legal standards...
"The Bill needs serious correction, including a conceptual one. It must contain a clearer formulation of the principle of equality of Religious Organizations before the Law, which has an exceptional importance under circumstances of nonconfessionalism of the population of Russian Federation. As well, provision for real guarantees ensuring the principle must be included....
"Article 15 violates the principle of equality of Religious Organizations, enhances State support...of traditional confessions,...violates the constitutional principle of equality of all social associations, including religious ones (Art. 13.4 of the Constitution), restrains the rights of people who are not citizens of the Russian Federation to confess, individually or together with others, any religion...[and puts] foreign Religious Organizations and foreigners who intend to carry out a public religious activity in direct dependence on Russian Religious Organizations' attitude toward them."
Source: Letter of R. Orekhov to A.E. Sebentsov, First Deputy of the Head of the Government Staff of the Russian Federation, 19 January 1995. Translation by Russian Ministries, Moscow.
An Eyewitness to the Parliamentary Debate
I was at the Parliament Center on Boulevard Tsvetnoi today [14 February 1995]. I witnessed the Duma hearings on the new proposed law for Freedom of Religion. The Duma is accepting some of the changes recommended by Yeltsin's office, but not all of them. Article 15 is being debated. Perhaps a softer version will be the result. This was a formal hearing for experts on law and religion to make public statements related to the Law. Gleb Yakunin gave what perhaps was the most stirring 10-minute speech I have ever heard from any Russian politician. He was jeered by Patriarch supporters at certain points. In fact, the chairman threatened to call in the militia to evict those who were disrupting the proceedings. At the end, Yakunin got about a minute of applause and a few standing ovations. The next few weeks will be very intriguing as the Orthodox Church is seemingly losing the momentum. The Duma deputies that spoke seemed to be very moderate and equated strict limitations on foreign religious workers as a return to totalitarian control. The speakers were equally distributed pro- and anti-foreign missionaries. However, the majority of the 400 present seemed to be very favorable to the statements made by Yakunin.
George Law is general manager for the Moscow office of Russian Ministries.
Will Decree Spark Battle of Religions?
The position of religious minorities in Russia has always been a tenuous one. But, in the last five years, those minorities?from Baptists to Buddhists?have enjoyed unprecedented freedom, a freedom some believe is threatened by new legislation on religion that may soon be considered by the State Duma.
Legal experts and religious leaders worry that it might open an unwanted and destructive debate in the Duma on religious freedom. "I think this law may be subject to a great political battle," said Gleb Yakunin, a Duma deputy and Russian Orthodox priest, at a two-day Moscow conference on the draft law. "By the third reading it may be so saturated with populist sentiments that it would not be recognizable....There is no guarantee that a faction would not introduce an amendment, which is easy to do, that would grossly violate world human rights standards."
The driving force behind the new legislation appears to be the Orthodox Church, which supports increased controls on missionaries and cults.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Moscow Times, 14 January 1995.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies