On 10 July 1996 the Russian Duma approved the first reading of new legislation regulating religious organizations by a vote of 376 to 3. The law was drafted by an Advisory Committee that includes representatives of most denominations and an array of legal experts, including Anatoly Pschelenstev, Vladislav Polosin, and others who have worked since 1993 on changes to the 1990 Law on Freedom of Conscience. The new legislation has the backing of all Duma factions and most religious organizations, although the Russian Orthodox Church has recently withdrawn from the Committee, seeking a stronger role and amendments not agreeable to other denominations. This may mean an end to compromise and a more confrontational position, based on the enormous political clout of the Orthodox Church.
Concerns motivating the Duma to amend the law are the perceived "lawlessness" of new and foreign religions and pseudo-religions; the negative impact of new religions on children and families; and conflicts between religious freedom and a secular state. Provisions of particular interest are the list of prohibited activities warranting closure of religious groups--violations of public order, attempts to alter the political system, disrupting the integrity of the Russian Federation, forming armed units, war propaganda, inciting religious strife, and causing adherents to leave school or violate other laws. Issues of continued concern are the failure to provide for exemptions from military service for seminary students and priests, lack of funding for church restoration and educational programs, permission to teach about religion only after hours in schools, and lack of provision for military chaplaincy programs. The Moscow Patriarchate sought special benefits and tax exemptions for its entrepreneurial activities which are not provided for in the current draft.
The new law provides that only "church" type organizations with religious doctrine, liturgies, and instruction, can be registered as religious organizations and can establish seminaries, produce liturgical literature, or found religious charitable or entrepreneurial organizations. Parachurch and interdenominational organizations will have to register under other laws. All existing religious organizations must reregister by 1 January 1999. Organizations whose charters do not conform to the new law could presumably be closed before then.
The law also provides that most religious organizations will be registered locally. Only groups with three local organizations in various regions of Russia may form national "centers" empowered to establish other organizations. Registration applicants must submit detailed information on their religious beliefs and doctrines. If they have centers outside the Russian Federation and/or profess previously unknown religions they may have to wait up to six extra months for review of their applications.
Foreigners are not yet excluded from serving as founders of religious organizations, but can do so only if they are permanent residents of Russia. Article 11 of the law also enables foreign religious organizations to establish "representations" in Russia, which have limited legal rights. Metropolitan Kyril, Chief of External Relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, spoke strongly to the Duma favoring further limitations on foreign religious workers, permitting their work only if they are affiliated with and invited by existing Russian religious organizations and work through them. The chairman of the Duma Committee considering the law, Victor I. Zorkaltsev, stated that the Committee "receives thousands of letters in which citizens express fright at the seemingly uncontrollable activities of foreign missionaries. They request the severest measures be undertaken." He promised to consider the additional amendments at the time of the second reading this fall.
This commentator understands the need to change the 1990 law to comply with changes in the new Civil Code and to address the perception that some religious organizations are violating the law and public sensibilities. However, we are concerned that limitations on activities of foreign religious workers will simply be the prelude to limitations on all forms of religious expression that are not deemed "traditional", including Protestant groups. It is a matter of major concern that the Patriarchate repeatedly expresses its agreement with Muslim organizations on these issues but not fellow Christians. Further, the local orientation of registration means that restrictive local laws will be increasingly important. Activities of religious groups will be increasingly subject to arbitrary restraints by local authorities or will possess rights only because of good relationships, not legal norms.
Lauren B. Homer is president of Law and Liberty Trust (LLT), and chair of the International Law Group (ILG). LLT monitors changes in laws affecting religious organizations and encourages those supporting religious freedom. ILG provides specific legal services to religious groups seeking to register overseas.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies