Freedom of worship flourished briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago but has been declining since 1993, and government agents again are threatening the rights of Protestant minorities, said Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute of Oxford, England, which monitors religious life in former Communist countries. "In religious freedom as in many other areas of life, Russia is to a large extent a lawless state," he continued.
Uzzell recommended that the United States and other Western countries warn Russian leaders they cannot expect their country to gain full integration into Europe and the West "while they continue and even intensify violations of fundamental rights, including rights guaranteed by their own constitution." Russia's 1993 constitution guaranteed religious freedom and declared all religions equal before the law, "but this guarantee has turned out to be largely meaningless in practice," Uzzell said. About one-fourth of Russia's provincial governments, he said, have adopted laws regulating religious activities in violation of both the constitution and the Helsinki agreements. Provinces are "now restoring one of the most virulent institutions of the Soviet era, the Council for Religious Affairs," often under the same bureaucrats as before, pursuing a mission "to control religious life in the interests of the state." The big difference from the Soviet system is that Russia's Orthodox Church is exempt from such controls and, in fact, some of the Orthodox clergy seek to remove the barrier between church and state and establish a theocracy, Uzzell said. He predicted that provincial regulations "will be enforced strictly only against those religious confessions which are not well-connected politically. In fact, some of the new provincial laws make it quite explicit that some religions have second-class status (and) . . . give provincial authorities wide discretion to ban religious activities which are inconvenient to themselves or their political allies." These laws often provide for revoking a church's accreditation if it ignites "so-called religious dissension," he continued. "This could easily include a sermon disagreeing with Russian Orthodox teachings about icons, or a lecture setting forth the Western position on the schism between the Papacy and the Orthodox Church. Baptists or Roman Catholics thus have no guarantee that they are free to preach the core doctrinal beliefs of their own religions."
Gene Kramer is a reporter for the Associated Press.
Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.
Restrictive Provinces By Name
Keston Institute Moscow reporter Lawrence Uzzell calculates that one-quarter or more of the 89 Russian Republic provincial governments now have legislation restricting religious liberty--or public or secret administrative instructions to the same effect. (Keston News Service, 21 November 1996; Lawrence Uzzell, "Stifling the Unorthodox," Moscow Times, 26 November 1996.) The East-West Church & Ministry Report has been able to identify by name 20 provinces or administrative units that have formally curtailed freedom of conscience, or are currently debating drafts of such laws in violation of the Russian Republic constitution and October 1990 national legislation on freedom of conscience. In the following list of such regions, known dates for the implementation of restrictions are included:
Nizhni Tagil (11/12/96)
Perm (law pending)
Ryazan (law pending)
St. Petersburg (law pending)
Sverdlovsk (law pending)
Yakutia (law pending)
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies