East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

New Restrictive Law on Religion in Russia

Mark Elliott

Key Provisions
President Yeltsin signed a new law on religion restricting the activity of non-Orthodox groups and missionaries on 26 September 1997.  The language of the controversial legislation is somewhat revised, but not substantively different from, the draft he rejected 23 July.  On 19 September the Russian Duma approved the bill, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," by a vote of 358 to 6, with one-fourth of representatives abstaining.  And on 24 September the upper house of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council, voted its unanimous approval, 137 to 0.

If implemented and enforced as written it will establish a two-tier approach to state treatment of religious bodies.  A privileged few "traditional" religions will be designated as "religious organizations." In contrast, less-favored "religious groups" will face major impediments to free exercise of religious rights.  Fifteen years of state registration on good behavior is required before a "religious group" can aspire to become a "religious organization."  The law, if enforced as written, will deny less-favored, second-tier "religious groups":  1) the right to operate educational institutions;  2) the right to publish or distribute literature;
3) the right to invite foreign guests to Russia;  4) the right of church access to Russian schools, hospitals, orphanages, and prisons; 5) the right to tax exemptions; and 6) the right of exemption from military service for clergy and clergy candidates.

Also troubling for non-Orthodox groups are the broad provisions for state prohibition of unwanted religious bodies. These grounds for banning, which are readily subject to arbitrary interpretations, include: a) "igniting social, racial, national, or religious dissension;" b) "the infliction of damage . . . on the mortality or health of citizens;" and c) "the performing of depraved or other disorderly actions."

The Russian Orthodox Church, Communists, and nationalists have pressed hard for this legislation, while Catholics, Protestants, Old Believers, and Orthodox not under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate have opposed it.

What Is the Forecast?

  1. It was unclear at press time how seriously the expatriate missionary community would be affected.  But in one strongly Communist provincial city a missionary was told by local officials just prior to the vote that if the law passed his family would have 24 hours to leave the country. If the new law is implemented and enforced as written it could lead to the largest expulsion of missionaries from a single country since China after 1949.
  2. If implemented as written the new law will require an enormous enforcement bureaucracy and will make religion subject to Soviet-style regulation; in fact, religion could become the most regulated aspect of Russian life.
  3. Since Russian administrative practice has always been more important than Russian law, enforcement will almost certainly be uneven--more repressive even than the new national legislation in some cases, and perhaps less repressive towards some Evangelical groups where pragmatic local officials may see a benefit in Protestant compassionate ministries.  Also, long-standing arbitrariness in law enforcement will give local officials greater opportunities to demand bribes.
  4. Basically 10 years of remarkable opportunities (1988-97) have created enough of an expanded Evangelical infrastructure that many Russian Protestants should be able to weather the coming storm.  It is worth remembering that Christian growth in China soared after the missionary exodus.
  5. If the new law is enforced as written, the 14 other former Soviet republics, with 25 million Russians, will probably assume greater importance: a) Western ministries may become more involved in reaching those 25 million; b) Western ministries may make use of some of the other 14 republics as forward bases for whatever short-term work can be done in Russia; and c) training Russians in the "near abroad" for service in Russia could become significant, assuming new Russian Protestant seminaries are closed or crippled.
  6. If the new law is rigorously enforced, the political advantages enjoyed by Orthodoxy in the short run will most likely prove debilitating in the long term because eliminating or radically curtailing non-Orthodox confessions will drastically reduce the possibility of Orthodox internal reform, which is sorely needed. (Throughout history, state-favored churches have consistently lost their spiritual vitality.) 
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Mark Elliott, "New Restrictive Law on Religion in Russia," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Summer 1997), 1-2.

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1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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