The November 1999 Court Ruling
Russia's Constitutional Court handed down a long-awaited ruling on 23 November 1999 substantially softening the blow of the restrictive October 1997 law on religion.1 Suits brought in 1998 by a Jehovah's Witness congregation in Yaroslavl and the Glorification Pentecostal Church in Abakan, Khakassia, Siberia, involved the two groups that had suffered the greatest degree of government harassment in the previous two years. Registered prior to the 1997 law but not more than 15 years prior, both suffered discrimination and threats of closure under the 1997 legislation's two-tiered system of privileges and disabilities for those with and without 15 years of legal recognition. The Yaroslavl church dates from 1967 but only managed to secure official registration in 1992. In fact, it would have been impossible for it to register before the 1990s because Jehovah's Witnesses were proscribed under Soviet law.2
In an 18-page decision widely applauded by human rights activists, Chief Justice Valerii Zorkin ruled that the controversial 15-year provision of Article 27 does not apply to groups registered prior to the passage of the 1997 law; nor does it apply to any congregation which has joined a "centralized religious organization" with a legal presence in at least three of Russia's 89 regions.3
Human rights lawyer Lauren Homer sees the decision as "a great triumph" and "cause for rejoicing," while attorney Anatolii Pchelintsev, who represented the Pentecostal church in the case, calls it "a substantial victory."4 Indeed, the vast majority of the thousands of churches founded by Protestants, Catholics, and new religious movements in the wake of Glasnost now have some legal protection under the court ruling. However, in Russian history arbitrary administrative practice frequently has been more important than the letter of the law. Thus, the observance of the court's decision by local authorities will require close monitoring. Furthermore, groups such as Jesuits, with direct lines of command to the Vatican rather than to Catholic hierarchs in Russia, and unregistered Baptists gain no benefit from the November 1999 court ruling.5
Keston Institute Director Lawrence Uzzell points out that the court did not actually declare any portion of the 1997 law on religion unconstitutional. On paper, the blatant discrimination between "religious organizations" and "religious groups" established in Article 27 still stands.6 Chief Justice Zorkin explicitly wrote, "The state has the right to block those sects that are carrying out illegal activities...so as not to automatically grant the status of a religious organization." And in some cases authorities have the right "to obstruct missionary activities... [and] proselytizing" when "accompanied by offers of material or social benefits." The chief justice insisted on the state's obligation to protect against "the unlawful influence on people in need or distress, psychological pressure, or threat of force."7 With such language, even Christ's injunction to share water and food with the destitute would appear to fit the Russian court's definition of bribery and manipulation. In truth, the line in Christian witness between genuine, godly compassion and unseemly material and psychological inducement can be difficult to draw. Still, it seems clear that Zorkin's language draws it in an extremely restrictive manner.
Artur Leontev, one of the defense lawyers in the case, believes the ruling "was made on the grounds of politics rather than jurisprudence."8 As attorney Lauren Homer notes, "It was clear that the Constitutional Court was under great pressure to avoid finding the entire law unconstitutional, thereby antagonizing the Russian parliamentary bodies....The court tried to take a middle ground and not find the law unconstitutional, but find a way that the majority of groups could reregister without special problems."9 Thus, to the extent that authorities comply, the ruling takes a major practical step forward in the protection of freedom of conscience.
Reregistration of Religious Communities: By Fits and Starts
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Russia's religious organizations were unable to reregister before the 31 December 1999 deadline established by the October 1997 law on religion. Deputy Minister of Justice Evgenii Sidorenko reported that out of approximately 16,000 religious groups officially registered in October 1997, only some 3,160 had completed reregistration by October 1999.10 Tatyana Titova of Keston News Service estimated in mid-December 1999 that in some provinces as many as 50 percent of religious bodies had not yet reregistered.11 In the fall of 1999 even the Moscow Patriarchate, with up to ten thousand parishes and auxiliaries not reregistered,12 joined other parties in seeking a one or two year extension from the Duma. With the support of the Ministry of Justice and Yeltsin's Chief for Internal Politics Andrei Loginov, the Duma's Committee on Religious Organization recommended a one year extension. But with the Chechen war raging and the distraction of election campaigning, the Duma recessed in December without taking action.13 Finally, on 21 February 2000 the Russian parliament passed an extension of the reregistration deadline to 31 December 2000. Currently some 7,000 religious associations have yet to reregister under the terms of the October 1997 law on religion.14
The low rate of reregistration stems in part from the inability of officials to cope with massive paperwork.15 But a more ominous explanation also is at hand. With a weakened federal government, Russia's local authorities are prone to interpret laws as they see fit. Thus in fall 1999 in Khabarovsk Krai officials rejected 62 of 65 applications for reregistration of religious bodies.16 Even in Moscow, with its high level of international media exposure, the rejection rate as of 1 October was 30 percent (127 of 417 applications).17 Finally, attorney Galina Krylova notes that many "non-traditional" groups have purposely avoided the reregistration process for fear of rejection and to avoid drawing attention to themselves.18
This defensive attitude was reinforced as local authorities continued with restrictions and harassment through the winter of 1999-2000: against Jehovah's Witnesses in the south Urals in Bashkortostan; against Catholics, Old Believers, Jews, and even Orthodox in Samara in the middle Volga; against Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Ioshkar-Ola, capital of the Mari El Republic; against Calvary Chapel Church parishioners and missionaries in Smolensk; against Pentecostals in Kirov and Kazan; against the Church of Christ in Cheboksary, Chuvash Republic; against Methodists in Moscow; and in Voronezh Province, against 13 different religious communities, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and Jews.19
Media incitement of hostility towards religious minorities also plays a destructive role. Attorney Galina Krylova reported over 600 negative articles in the Russian press about Jehovah's Witnesses alone in the past four years.20 Sad to say, media attacks on Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and new religious movements are the rule, rather than the exception. With Patriarch Alexi II's baseless charge in November 1999 that foreign missionaries often employ drugs to secure converts, one sees little hope in the near term for substantive interconfessional dialogue or religious tolerance in Russia.21 As the Manchester Guardian recently reported, the Russian Orthodox Church "appears to have transformed itself from persecuted victim to bullying aggressor in a decade."22 The recent election defeat of Deputy Valerii Borshov, one of the Duma's few, consistent advocates of freedom of conscience, strikes another blow. At the same time, a former employee of the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs, which previously kept a stranglehold on the church, now holds a significant post in the bureaucracy of the Moscow Patriarchate. "It's as if," Keston's Lawrence Uzzell notes, "post-war Germany had employed an ex-Nazi to oversee ethnic relations."23
Orthodox hostility toward non-Orthodox, the caprice of local authorities, and the bias of the Russian media compel those who champion religious liberty to continue careful monitoring of a fragile and vulnerable freedom of conscience in Russia.
What the Future May Hold
To no one's surprise, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has been succeeded by an ardent nationalist. To be sure, Acting President Vladimir Putin, upon taking office 31 December 1999, publicly expressed support for democracy and civil liberties. But the former KGB chief also has deferred to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy even more effusively than did Yeltsin. Ultimately, however, whatever his degree of support for freedom of conscience, it appears unlikely that Putin or any other Russian strong man could successfully suppress Protestant or other non-Moscow Patriachate Orthodox expressions of faith, short of an improbable return to Stalinism. Basically, a decade of unprecedented freedom of conscience (1990-99) created enough of an expanded infrastructure that many faith communities outside the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate should be able to withstand present and future restrictions.
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report and director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL.
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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report