East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

The 1997 Russian Law on Religion: The Demographics of Discrimination*

Mark Elliott with Sharyl Corrado

Russia's September 1997 law on religion replaced the October 1990 law on freedom of conscience, widely applauded for its careful safeguards of religious liberty.1  In summary, the new legislation calls for a two-tier approach to state recognition of religious bodies.  A privileged few "traditional" religions, including the Russian Orthodox Church, are designated as "religious organizations" while less-favored "religious groups" face major impediments to free exercise of religious rights.  Fifteen years of state registration on good behavior are required before a "religious group" can aspire to become a "religious organization."2

Factors That Have Worked Against Harsh Enforcement
Implementation of the 1997 law to date has been uneven.  At least in the short run, a number of factors appear to have worked against consistently harsh application, including:  1) Russia's centuries-old experience with finding ways around official requirements; 2) certain ambiguities in the law and ambiguities and delays in the preparation of implementing regulations; 3) the growing use of e-mail, which appears to have made it difficult for local Russian authorities to engage in blatant religious discrimination without rapid public scrutiny; and 4) Russian human rights lawyers' inventive utilization of an apparent oversight in the law to the advantage of religious minorities. Protestant attorney Vladimir Rakhovsky is convinced he has found a loophole for non-Orthodox in the language of this rushed legislation. He believes that drafters by mistake failed to restrict "centralized religious organizations" (CRO) and that forming a CRO should effectively circumvent most discriminatory and punitive provisions of the new 1997 law on religion.3

At Least Sixty-nine Documented Instances of Repression
Still, life since passage of the law has not been easy for many who wish to worship outside the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate.  The first 15 months of the new law included at least 69 specific instances of state harassment, restriction, or threat of restriction, against non-Moscow Patriarchate religious communities in the Russian Republic.  (See the forthcoming Keston article for a table of incidents.)  Most Orthodox and Cossack actions against religious minorities4--with the passive assent of the state--are not documented. On the other hand, reported instances of discrimination or repression to date have been relatively few, compared to what could have been expected, considering the stringent language of the law.5

The Demographics of Discrimination
While the tabulation of 69 incidents undoubtedly is incomplete, it still reveals certain  patterns and demographics of discrimination under the new law on religion.6  Fifty-two of the 69 reported incidents involve Protestants (37 indigenous groups, 11 foreign missionary organizations, and four both); eight incidents involve Catholics; six incidents involve Orthodox, including two reprisals against Moscow Patriarchate clergy not supportive of the new law; five incidents involve cults; one incident involves Old Believers; and one incident involves Jews.

  • Indigenous Protestants
  • The months before passage of the new law witnessed a barrage of press attacks against foreign cults and Protestant missionaries.  However, cults (5 instances, or 7.2 percent) and Protestant missionaries (15 instances, or 21.7 percent) together account for only 27.5 percent (19 instances total, including one affecting both Protestants and cults) of reported government restrictions or threats of restrictions.  In contrast, 59.4 percent (41 of 69) of reported incidents involve indigenous Protestants.
  • Cults
  • Surprisingly, foreign cults have been comparatively unaffected by the latest wave of religious discrimination (only four reported incidents).  And Mormons actually appear for the moment to be enjoying something of a privileged status, despite the minimal response of the Russian people to their missionaries.7  Mormons' official recognition as a centralized religious organization, a preferred status under the new Russian legislation, came on 15 May 1998, just days before the U.S. Congress voted yea or nay on Russian aid, which was contingent upon evidence of Moscow's nondiscrimination in religion.8
  • More About Protestants:  Pentecostals and Evangelical Christians-Baptists
  • Pentecostals have had the greatest difficulty of any group to date (20 of 69 reported incidents, or 29 percent).  Twelve reported incidents involve Evangelical Christians-Baptists (17.4 percent), which is surprising, since this church satisfies the "fifteen-year rule" and theoretically should not face restrictions.

    Repression Reversed
    A final observation regarding state harassment, restrictions, and threats of restrictions against religious minorities:  It is striking, to date, how often repressive measures of authorities have been unsuccessful or reversed, and how often believers have refused to be intimidated.  In at least 15 instances, officials, so far, have not had their way.9  For example, in November-December 1997, in Ioshkar-Ola, capital of the Mari El Autonomous Republic, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association evangelist Viktor Hamm, a Russian-German émigré with Canadian citizenship, organized a preaching crusade with the help of local Evangelical Christians-Baptists.  Mari El authorities granted permission, withdrew permission, and again reversed themselves, finally allowing the meetings to be held, following a blizzard of e-mail reports and e-mail appeals for readers to phone or fax the Mari El president opposing restrictions.10

    The most recent instance, and a quite dramatic example of religious discrimination reversed, involves Russia's June 1998 denial of one-year visas for foreign missionaries, even as they continued to be issued to foreigners for business and cultural purposes.  Without explanation, Moscow began issuing only three-month visas to foreign religious workers, and again, without explanation, on 26 August, Moscow reversed itself and began, once again, issuing one-year visas to missionaries.11

    What the Future May Hold
    Russian President Boris Yeltsin very likely will be succeeded by a nationalist beholden to Russian Orthodoxy who will be little swayed by Western ideas of human rights.12  Post-Yeltsin repression certainly is possible, perhaps even probable.  But it appears unlikely that any state actions will end Protestant, Catholic, non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox, and cult presence in Russia, short of an improbable return to Stalinism or its equivalent.  Basically, a decade of unprecedented opportunities (1989-98) created enough of an expanded infrastructure that many faith communities outside the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate should be able to weather any coming storm.

    *The present article is excerpted from a revised version of a paper originally delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Boca Raton, FL, 25 September 1998.  The complete paper is forthcoming in Religion, State and Society, the Keston Journal.

    1. John Witte, Jr., "Introduction; Soul Wars:  The Problem and Promise of Proselytism in Russia," Emory International Law Review 12 (Winter 1998), 5-6.

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

    5. Minutes of the "Gathering" meeting, Moscow, 9 October 1997.  As soon as the law's definitive implementing regulations were released on 10 March 1998, religious bodies began applying for, and at least 14 to date have received, legal recognition as centralized religious organizations (CROs), theoretically exempt from most of the discriminatory provisions of the September 1997 law on religion.  The 14 religious bodies with CRO status include the Russian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons, five Pentecostal and charismatic churches, Evangelical Christians-Baptists, the Association of Churches of Evangelical Christians, Methodists, Adventists, and the Association for Spiritual Renewal (a Russian Protestant parachurch ministry closely affiliated with U.S.-based Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries).

    7. For example, Roman Lunkin, "Cossacks Use Whips Against Protestants," Keston News Service (KNS), 15 September 1998; and Lilia Solomonova, Radiotserkov, 16 September 1998.

    9. Lauren B. Homer, "The 1997 Russian Federation Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations:  Should the Smith Amendment Sanctions Be Implemented?," Testimony Presented to the Subcommittee on Europe of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 20 May 1998 (http://www.senate.gov/~foreign/homer.htm); Lawrence A. Uzzell, "Concrete Effects of Russia's New Religion Law," KNS, 23 April 1998.

    11. Beverly Nickles, "More Complications Are Expected in 1998 as Religious Groups Attempt to Re-Register," Compass Direct, 19 December 1997, 38-41.

    13. Uzzell, KNS, 29 March 1998; Associated Press, 22 March 1998; Religion Today, 26 August 1998.

    15. Associated Press, 15 May 1998.

    17. Salvation Army, St. Petersburg; Lutheran, Tuim; Pentecostal, Gatchina; Evangelical Christian-Baptist (ECB), Syktyvkar; Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Ryazan; Presbyterian, Reutov; ECB, Ioshkar-Ola; Pentecostal, Yaroslavl; Independent Baptist, Khabarovsk; Pentecostal, Abakan; ECB, Tula; Pentecostal, Magadan; Jehovah's Witnesses, Yaroslavl; Protestant and Catholic visas, Moscow and nationwide; and Jehovah's Witnesses court case, Moscow.

    19. Mark Elliott, "The New Russian Law on Religion:  Will E-mail Undermine Draconian Enforcement?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 5 (Fall 1997), 16.

    21. Ibid.; Beverly Nickles, "Trouble in Russia's Far East," Compass Direct, 23 September 1998.

    23. This is the argument of Alexei Malashenko, Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:  Gareth Jones, "Russian Religion Law," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Summer 1998), 10-11.

    Mark Elliott with Sharyl Corrado, "The 1997 Russian Law on Religion: The Demographics of Discrimination," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Winter 1999), 1-2.

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    © 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
    ISSN 1069-5664

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