The legislation provides for an opportunity to bring order in the activity of many new religious trends unknown in Russia and of an enormous number of missionaries and persons coming from all parts of the world and claiming to be religious ministers. The notion of traditional religion exists in most countries whose commitment to democratic standards is doubtless. Such countries as Finland, Greece, Iceland, Egypt, [and] Denmark have state religions; Ireland recognizes a special place of the Catholic Church, while England, the Protestant Church of England. There are many such examples. In Italy the state has concluded a special agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. In the USA the activity of various religious structures is rigidly regulated by the taxation laws. In order to obtain privileges making it possible to carry out its everyday church work, it is necessary to go through serious state screening and fill in a special questionnaire. As a result of such screening, religious groups are granted different kinds of status.
Why is not anyone upset that a number of countries declare themselves Catholic countries, but we are frightened that the law's preamble simply points out the historic role and value of Orthodoxy in Russia?
The law protects the traditional Russian religion, Orthodoxy, so we believe it undoubtedly must be adopted. It creates a barrier for totalitarian sects and limits the activity of foreign missionaries.
The Kremlin considers that "Western critics" have no basis to speak out negatively regarding the new version of the draft law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations." Press secretary of the president of the Russian federation Sergei Yastrzhembsky declared: "Nevertheless, for us the chief matter is not the reaction of Western critics; for us it is more important to secure freedom of religious profession and the equality of confessions in accordance with the Russian constitution." In Yastrzhembsky's opinion, there always "were, are, and will be" critics, but that does not mean that "we should give attention to every peep from abroad."
Jonathan Jennings, official representative of the synod of the state Anglican church of Great Britain, called the adoption of the law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations "a triumph of the forces of democracy in Russia. For the Anglican church it constitutes great satisfaction to learn that believers of Russia will be able to possess the freedom to lift their prayers to the Lord each in his own way and in his personal spirit."
I actually don't have much problem with the law. If Mother Russia wants to preserve its Orthodox Christian heritage and not go the godless way of the West, this makes sense to me.
As an Orthodox priest and a friend to Evangelicals, please allow me to express my personal regret that the Orthodox Church in Russia has cooperated in the passage of a law which so threatens the many who have been the instruments of the Gospel in Russia. Although it is perhaps not an intended function of mainstream Evangelical missionaries in Russia, there are many young Orthodox who were introduced to the Gospel by Evangelicals, and who then returned to the Church of their forebears to live out and deepen their commitment to that Gospel. On their behalf, I thank you in Christ's name.
I also fully support freedom of conscience and religious commitment on its own grounds. There have been many abuses of that freedom in Russia. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China [place] restrictions on missionaries even more severe than those Russia has enacted. These often less deplored restrictions, however, constitute no apology for this regrettable law. Abuses of freedom are no excuse for its willful elimination.
As before, there are points which provide for the interference of the state in the affairs of religion and which contradict the Russian constitution. The Convention on Defense of Rights and Basic Freedoms of the Council of Europe has not been ratified, but soon will be delivered to the Duma for ratification. The ratification of this document is the prerequisite for Russia's membership in the Council of Europe. This September law [on religion] violates many provisions of this convention.
"Yeltsin basically caved in" to pressures from the Orthodox Church, commented Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. The draft law is "grossly discriminating," he said, and is destined to be condemned by the Council of Europe. The council last year extended membership to Russia on the condition that it bring laws and practices on human rights issues into conformity with Western standards.
The fundamental violations of the Constitution which you yourself pointed out in rejecting the [July] law have not been removed from the new bill. The new bill, like the previous one, still contains a series of discriminatory provisions which contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation and generally accepted norms of international law. The new bill's differentiation of religious associations would establish by statute the inequality of religious associations before the law. We expressed our support of the work of the negotiating group after being assured that our proposals would be taken into account in the writing of the bill's final text. But that did not happen. You also were misled into supposing that the new amendments to the bill had been agreed to and approved by "the representatives of the various religious confessions."
Xenophobia is once again rearing its ugly head in Russia: As in tsarist days, religion fuses with statehood and nationalism to thwart democracy and civil rights.
This latest version [the September law] makes it unmistakably clear that religious bodies which were not willing to make the compromises necessary to receive state registration from the Soviet regime before the end of the Brezhnev era cannot enjoy full legal rights today. The utterly unacceptable, core concept of the July bill--its invidious distinction between first-class "religious organizations" and second-class "religious groups"--remains fully intact. It's so close to being identical that it's hard to believe the president who proposed this bill is the same man who wrote the veto message of July. Virtually every one of the objections Yeltsin made in July is still valid.
There are some very strange games being played. People like Loginov [of President Yeltsin's staff] are like children telling one tale to one friend and an opposite one to another. Do they really think that we [in the West] are blind to what they are telling and promising their own countrymen when they tell our leaders that nothing will change as a result of the law?
If today the Russian Federation aspired to be recognized as a democratic state, it does not have the right to declare the priority of religious confession or even some religious organizations over others. The law itself is permeated by the idea that those religious organizations which have been left to us from the communist inheritance, be they Islamic or Christian, are unable in the current democratic conditions to compete with newly created organizations because of their own weakness and because of their dependence on the state structure.
The Holy See unites with those who have regretted this step [the new law], which certainly does not represent progress on the path to religious coexistence in that great Nation [Russia].
The law is really not a law. It is a collection of contradictory paragraphs in which the aspirations of various forces can be identified. What depresses me most of all is that in our Duma there are 450 people, the flower of society, who are ready to surrender their own authority and to vote for a law which our children will ridicule.
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies