East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 4, Fall 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe


Can Social Stability and Individual Freedom of Conscience Coexist?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The ending of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe and the collapse of Soviet power across the Eurasian landmass led to the dissolution of the ideological straitjacket that had constricted the philosophical and religious life in all the societies of the region.  The primacy of a single worldview--dialectical materialism as interpreted by the Communist Party--was repudiated and ideological pluralism embraced in its stead.  This was especially evident at the beginning of the 1990s in the area of religious freedom, for if the citizen cannot freely choose his or her opinions about God, no form of pluralism--philosophical, political, or economic--is truly safeguarded.

On the surface there would appear to be a strong historical and cultural base for pluralism within Eurasian societies.  Western merchants who visited the East during the 17th century were impressed by the prevailing sentiment that "every man shall be saved by his own religion."  Despite instances of persecution and harassment of minority communities, cities such as Kazan, Baku, Thessalonika, Skopje, or Istanbul enjoyed a much greater degree of religious and ethnic pluralism in the pre-modern era than comparable cities in Western Europe such as London, Paris, or Madrid.  However, there is a significant difference in the way that pluralism developed and is understood between West and East.  In the largely homogenous societies of Western Europe, pluralism evolved to protect the right of dissenters to differ from the established majority community; in the East, pluralism fostered the coexistence of different communities side-by-side in the same geographic space.  Therefore, in the traditional Eurasian view, pluralism is the right of different communities to exist and manifest their distinctive peculiarities rather than the right of an individual within the community to choose from a competing number of allegiances.

Protecting Groups vs. Protecting Individuals
This understanding has a profound impact on the way judges and government officials interpret constitutional provisions protecting pluralism.  A "Eurasian consensus" appears to be developing whereby the primary value ascribed to pluralism is the preservation of peaceful coexistence and harmony amongst the different communities found within society, with preeminence reserved for traditional faith(s).  It is based on official recognition that a specific faith tradition is considered to be inextricably tied to the development of the national culture.

The "Eurasian consensus" works from the assumption that international norms of pluralism are best served by allowing each group, both the majority as well as minorities, existing on the territory of the state to fully function and to retain the allegiance of its members without fear of overt competition from other groups.  The late Catholicos-Patriarch of the Armenian Church, Vazgen I, echoed such sentiments when, in commenting on the concept of religious liberty, he said this guaranteed to all religions the right to practice and propagate their faith, but that "They are to practice it in their respective communities only.  Acts of conversion and [proselytizing] are forbidden."  Each specific religious tradition is therefore connected to specific demographic groups in society.  A very real fear in a number of Eurasian societies is that unrestrained competition among groups as well as the introduction of new religious movements that might not be prepared to recognize the "Eurasian consensus" of tolerance among the "traditional" groups could end up polarizing society and undermining the very basis for toleration.

"Managed" Pluralism
Increasingly, it appears that the states of Eurasia are moving toward a system of "managed pluralism" whereby the state, although imposing no one ideology, nevertheless takes steps to limit the number of options available.  In Russia, a complicated registration process that is required in order to give religious groups legal standing to operate in society is being manipulated by local officials in the various regions to deny unpopular groups the ability to continue to function as legal entities.  Mongolia's legislation on religion (Article 7.6) had contained a provision barring all faiths other than the "traditional" faiths of Buddhism, Shamanism, and Islam from conducting any missionary work at all. This restriction was eventually overturned by the Constitutional Court, but another provision (Article 4.7) remains in operation by which "religious activities organized outside of Mongolia to introduce foreign religions within Mongolia are prohibited."  Similarly, Azerbaijan's law "On Freedom of Religious Beliefs" prohibits the "carrying out of religious propaganda by foreigners" on the territory of the republic (Article 1).

"Managed pluralism" represents the Eurasian compromise to solve what Bulgarian human rights lawyer Atanas Krussteff describes as the "collision of cultures" that has taken place throughout the region, between a largely Western legal and constitutional philosophy focusing on the individual and a more Eastern focus on communities and communal stability. "Indisputable principles such as the rule of law, equality, the separation of church and state, and anti-discrimination clauses are compromised as soon as we enter the field of religious rights and practices ... because the latter is seen as being indivisibly connected with national identity."  As we move into the 21st century, the principal human rights issues in Eurasia--those dealing not only with religious matters, but also with such concerns as freedom of the press or freedom of assembly--are increasingly going to center on the degree of pluralism permitted in society and the extent to which divergence from the accepted list of choices provided by state and society will be permitted.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is associate director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Excerpts reprinted with permission from Nikolas K. Gvosdev, "Tolerance versus Pluralism: The Eurasian Dilemma," Analysis of Current Events 12 (December 2000), 7-10.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, "Can Social Stability and Individual Freedom of Conscience Coexist,"

A Response to Nikolas Gvosdev

Lauren B. Homer

Restrictions on Nontraditional Faiths Are a Legacy of Totalitarianism.
In European Communist states, regulators permitted only a handful of state-controlled religious organizations to exist and ruthlessly repressed other groups. This was convenient for both regulators and the institutions that survived under state sponsorship. In 1990 less than ten percent of the population in these countries admitted to any faith.  And even today less than ten percent attend worship on a weekly basis.  Historic faiths are convenient supports for state interests, but states have no business defining what constitutes a living, breathing faith community. In my experience, the motivation to remand citizens to specific faith communities based on their ethnic background stems from security and law enforcement concerns and religious jealousies, not legitimate historic traditions.

"Managed Pluralism" Is Inconsistent with National and International Laws and Treaties.
Post-Communist states typically subscribe to constitutions, laws, and international agreements promising freedom of belief and freedom of association in exercising those beliefs, irrespective of nationality or faith. Under these laws, believers possess the right to establish religious organizations in which they may exercise their unique beliefs, even if they are only slightly different from others.  Since 1990, with the help of good lawyers, the types of provisions Dr. Gvosdev applauds have consistently been invalidated.  Examples include the Russian Supreme Court victories of Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Jesuits.  In my opinion praising laws that intentionally violate international standards undermines the rule of law and invites a return to Soviet practice.

Meaningful Security and Law Enforcement Concerns Can Be Addressed in Other Ways.
Under international law, governments possess the right to restrict and ban religious groups that threaten national security, public order, health, or morals.  In meetings over the last decade, religious organization regulators in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan have expressed deep concern that radical Islam and other disruptive faiths might destabilize their governments and harm citizens.  The significance of their concerns became all too clear as a result of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 11 September 2001. Unfortunately, a common response is to place restraints on religious activities of all foreigners and all new "sects."  Additional restrictions are likely that will affect all foreign religious workers in post-Communist states, including tightened restrictions on foreign religious workers, importing and use of foreign currency, and government monitoring of the content and dissemination of religious ideas.  However, the focus should always be on legitimate security and law enforcement concerns, not on groups engaged in the peaceful manifestations of nontraditional beliefs.

World Faiths Need to Account for Changing Political and Social Realities.
In periods of rapid and disconcerting change it is normal for people to revisit faiths associated with their national identity and more stable times. I have heard Russians and Romanians say "We were born Orthodox," ignoring the fact that their nations tolerated only state atheism when they were actually born. This social phenomenon does not provide a religious or legal solution to the collision of cultures that exists in our world today.  In reality, faiths are not static and good laws will take this into account.  Historically, traditional faiths that do not adapt to cultural and political realities wither or are overthrown.  Post-Soviet citizens may adopt the badges of traditional faiths, but they will be fully engaged only by living faiths that impact and improve their daily lives.  As Jesus said, if we try to put new wine in old wineskins, they will surely burst and waste the wine.  The challenge to the historic faiths that have suffered so much from state suppression is to focus on meeting the needs of their flocks, not on eliminating "competitors."

Lauren Homer is an attorney with Pranschke & Holderle, L. C., St. Louis, MO.


Lauren B. Homer, "A Response to Nikolas Gvosdev," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Fall 2001), 7-8. East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Fall 2001), 6-7.

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2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664



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