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

Human Rights Lawyer Criticizes New Russian Religion Law

Lauren B. Homer

Despite President Boris Yeltsin's courageous veto of the original parliamentary legislation [on religion] adopted in July, he agreed on 4 September 1997 to a "compromise" that retained many points of concern.  The version passed by the Duma and Federation Council on 19 and 24 September and signed by Yeltsin on 26 September is virtually identical to that passed in July--and in some ways, it is more restrictive.  The law, which will take effect upon official Russian government publication in Rossiskaya gazeta, will validate the charters of currently registered religious organizations only to the extent that they comply with the new legislation.  The new law raises grave concerns about the future of religious freedom in Russia.

Duma Secretiveness and Disregard for Procedure
The Duma Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations, which has been considering the legislation, met in great secrecy and canceled a public meeting scheduled for the morning of 17 September to allow religious leaders to comment on the legislation.  However, late on 17 September, it met secretly and abruptly approved the current version.  Appeals from the Vice Chair of the Committee, Valery Borshchov, to delay the vote so that deputies could review the text and address protests from religious leaders in Russia were disregarded.  The reason for haste is obvious. On a daily basis, leaders of Russian religious organizations, some of whom had been misled into stating that they favored the legislation in early September, had denounced the law and asked for reconsideration.  For example, Keston News Service reported earlier on 17 September that leaders of Roman Catholic, Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, and Muslim organizations in Russia had spoken out against the law, and even stated that their prior support for the compromise version had been a result of being misled about its contents.  Also, adverse international reaction was building to the latest version.  Its proponents doubtless felt that their best chance of passage was an immediate vote before public opposition had an opportunity to crystallize further.

A Fuzzy Fifteen-Year Rule
The most controversial provision of the July version remains in the law--the "fifteen-year rule"--depriving religious organizations that have "existed" for less than 15 years of most rights.  There remains some ambiguity about what is meant by proof of "existence" for 15 years. Some organizations have been privately assured that the fact that their faiths existed and owned church property prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution would be considered proof of existence for more than 15 years, even if they had no open churches 15 years ago.  If  "existence" only means having engaged in religious activity in Russia at any time prior to 1982, many historic Russian minority faiths will be able to exercise full legal rights.  However, this optimistic interpretation is at odds with many public statements of draftsmen and the entire tenor of the legislation.

In a slight improvement over the July version, "newer" currently registered organizations can reregister.  However, they must continue to reapply for registration on an annual basis until the 15-year time period has elapsed--an exercise guaranteed to exhaust the resources of most organizations. Foreigners and other noncitizens must recruit Russian founders of their organizations or form unregistered religious "groups".  There has already been a threat from Ukraine to ban the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, if Ukrainian citizens living on the territory of Russia are denied the right to set up their own Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

Implementation and Implications
Our assessment is that, following the final adoption of the new Russian law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," there will be swift implementation by local authorities, additional restrictive legislation in the tax and mass media areas, and extralegal actions by local police forces, eager to show their willingness to enforce these laws.  It is staggering to imagine local governments or even the Russian Ministry of Justice attempting to deal with reregistration of over 14,000 religious organizations by 31 December 1999, with annual reregistration of most of the organizations.

Clearly, there are legal solutions to the crisis to be faced by many groups--creation of new umbrella organizations and denominations based on local and national churches that existed during the Soviet period.  One recent legal challenge to a repressive local ordinance was successful (Udmyrtia), and it may be that the Russian courts are the best place to continue this fight.

During the last two months, the Moscow Patriarchate has reiterated its belief that Russia is its own "canonical territory" and that "proselytizing" by other Christian faiths must be stopped, while simultaneously claiming that the law is equal in its impact on all faiths.  The law may drive many foreign missionaries and newer religious movements out of Russia, but it will not create greater respect for the Orthodox Church, provide moral or spiritual guidance for the masses who pursue self-interest rather than faith, or heal the incalculable damage caused by 75 years of state-imposed atheism. 

Excerpted with permission from "Law and Liberty Alert:  Duma Adopts Revised Legislation on Religious Freedom in Russia, Federation Council Vote Imminent," a 14-page critique available from Law and Liberty Trust, 333 Maple Ave. East, #1085, Vienna, VA 22180; tel:  703-319-3646; fax:  703-319-3625; e-mail:  75050.3251@compuserve.com.  Donations are welcome.

Lauren B. Homer is president of Law and Liberty Trust.

The 1997 Russian Law on Religion:  A Timeline

10 July 1996 Duma voted approval of new law on religion, 376 to 3 (first reading)
6 June 1997 Much more restrictive draft approved by Duma religion committee in closed-door session 
18 June Duma approved restrictive law on religion, 337 to 5 (second reading)
23 June Duma passed law, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association,"  300 to 8 (third reading)
4 July Federation Council approved new law, 112 to 4
22 July President Yeltsin rejected new law and returned it to Duma for revision
4 September President Yeltsin expressed approval for a revised draft law on religion negotiated by Duma and presidential staff.  However, this "compromise" bill was substantively the same as the bill previously rejected by Yeltsin.
17 September Duma religion committee met secretly to approve the "compromise" bill
19 September Duma approved new law on religion, 358 to 6
24 September Federation Council approved new law unanimously, 137 to 0
26 September President Yeltsin signed new law, which superseded the October 1990 law on religion
1 October New law published and took effect

Lauren B. Homer, "Human Rights Lawyer Criticizes New Russian Religion Law," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Summer 1997), 2-3.

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

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