Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe
New Restrictive Law on Religion in Russia
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
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
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?
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
- 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Mark Elliott, "New Restrictive Law on Religion in Russia," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Summer 1997), 1-2.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe