The New Russian Law on Religion: Will E-mail Undermine Draconian Enforcement?
Given the size of the Russian Republic, it is unlikely that the East-West & Ministry Report has been able to identify every instance of state infringement of religious liberty based on the September 1997 Russian law on religion. (See chart on page 6.) On the other hand, reported instances to date are relatively few, compared to what could be expected, considering the stringency of the language of the law. (See East-West Church & Ministry Report 5 [Summer 1997], 1-5.) This may change now that Russian authorities have released 70-plus pages of implementing regulations (ITAR-TASS, 9 December 1997). Or, "'the most severe wave' of crackdowns against disfavored minorities," to use the language of legal scholar Lev Semkin, may be delayed until after the December 1999 deadline for religious groups to reregister (Keston News Service, 15 October 1997).
The fall of 1997 witnessed regional attempts at strict enforcement, followed by concerted indigenous and international protest, and in some instances, at least temporarily, reversals of decisions. For example, Moscow appears to have prevailed upon local officials to the benefit of Lutherans in Khakassia, Siberia, and to the benefit of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and other Protestants in the Mari El Republic. (See chart.)
Since the pattern of enforcement to date is mixed and inconclusive, it would appear that Anatoli Krasikov of the International Religious Liberty Association was correct when he expressed the conviction "that 'serious repression' would not begin until the issue had faded from the forefront of Western diplomatic and media attention" (KNS, 15 October 1997).
In Moscow in 1991 e-mail played a novel role in helping spread the truth during critical, early days of the Communists' abortive coup attempt. Similarly, this editor wonders if e-mail may make it difficult, if not impossible, for local Russian authorities to engage in religious repression without word reaching the whole country and the West in record time. This burgeoning form of computer- based communication may have played a pivotal role in the case of the Mari El Republic: at the end of November 1997, President Viacheslav Kilitsyn banned a previously approved evangelistic campaign, but then quickly reversed his decision, following a blizzard of e-mail reports and e-mail appeals for readers to phone or fax the president requesting reconsideration.
Certainly the new law did not inaugurate arbitrary treatment of non-Orthodox religions. Approximately one-quarter of Russian provinces already had enacted restrictive and discriminatory legislation on religion prior to September 1997. And apart from any legal consideration, local authorities, prior to the new legislation, often deferring to Orthodox wishes, frequently denied Evangelicals rental rights to public facilities and made it very difficult to purchase land or secure building permits. Discriminatory practice against non-Orthodox would be the case with or without the September 1997 law. What the new law does do is to legitimize and dramatically increase the probability of pervasive state interference in religious life in ways that undermine the Russian Constitution's guarantee of equal protection before the law.
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies