The Challenge of Religious Liberty in Russia: The Need for a New Approach

By: Andrew Bennett

September 21, 2017

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The tale of government restrictions on religious freedom in the post-Soviet space makes for depressing reading as the pace of imposing tighter controls on various minority religious communities continues largely unabated. The case of Russia perhaps prompts the greatest concern. There, various laws and regulations restricting religious freedom coupled with increasing social pressure among Russian Orthodox hierarchs, theologians, and institutions to conform to the present order of things within the Moscow Patriarchate have seriously choked religious expression. Increasing restrictions on so-called “extremists”—be they Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees, or Muslims who embrace the teachings of Said Nursi—shape the landscape. Recent amendments to the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, including the July 2015 provision which abolished the ability of unregistered religious communities to operate without state approval and the July 2016 amendment that restricted the ill-defined concept of missionary activity, are clear indicators of the limited ability of Russian citizens to exercise any semblance of genuine religious liberty.

The first anniversary this summer of the July 2016 amendment and the complete suppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia offers those of us committed to the advancement of religious liberty and the championing of human dignity more broadly an opportunity to assess the Russian case. Three issues need to be considered. Firstly, what is the ultimate goal of these restrictions? Secondly, what has been their impact? And finally, what are realistic approaches to restoring a modicum of religious freedom within the Russian Federation?

Article 14 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation declares that Russia is a secular state, forbids the establishment of a state or obligatory religion, and orders that religious associations be separate from the state and equal before the law. This is not the present reality. This provision bears the patina of the halcyon days of the religious renaissance of the 1990s, when a plethora of Orthodox lay movements emerged, seminaries re-opened, churches restored, and new religious communities took their place in this environment of greater openness. As Russian journalist Sergei Chapnin (formerly of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate) has argued, the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 2000s abandoned a more open, democratic model in favor of an imperial one in which it is bound to the state, reliant on the government for patronage and for funds to construct and restore churches. Likewise, Chapnin argues, the Russian state uses the Orthodox Church to shape a particular Russian national identity and its accompanying patriotism, and to define the notion of the Russian world, Russkiy Mir, which has been employed to justify Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, where Kiev and its position as the mother church of Rus’ holds significant propaganda value. Chapnin asserts that in this post-2000 phase “the Church is circling back to Sovietism, promoting conformity and dreaming of imperial expansion.” 

Never mind that a small minority of professed Russian Orthodox attend liturgies and practice their faith; it can be argued that in this imperial church-state fusion to be Russian is to be Orthodox. While Jews, state-friendly Muslim communities, Buddhist Kalmyks, and a smattering of Roman Catholics and below-the-radar Protestant congregations are tolerated, there is an underlying supposition that they exist outside the dominant imperial and Orthodox narrative. Such a view is bound up in the social and historical reality of the Russian Federation and its Soviet and tsarist precursor states that sought to further conform to the politico-religious nature of the state—whether that religion was Marxist-Leninist or Orthodox—and the symphonia between church and state that it comprehended and asserted.

With close to 200 individuals and communities being charged with “anti-missionary” activities since July 2016 and the outright suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, whose members significantly outnumber those of other faiths facing charges, Russian authorities are upholding religious freedom restrictions enabled by provisions of the Criminal Code and other regulations. According to an August 17, 2017 report from the Oslo-based Forum 18, there has been a steady increase in prosecutions of individuals and communities under the anti-missionary provisions of Administrative Code Article 5.26, with 141 convictions and 138 fines imposed. The ban imposed on Jehovah’s Witnesses has already led to the prosecution of a woman in Kursk who was charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code with trying to recruit people to an “extremist organization.” More prosecutions will follow.

One can argue that these actions by the Russian state—which defines members of those faith communities who do not conform as “extremists”—is necessary from the Russian authorities’ point of view. It is a matter of enforcing a broad notion of public order. It is not dissimilar from ancient Roman authorities’ apprehension over Christians and the threat they posed to order given their obstinate refusal to pay obeisance to the emperor or worship the ancient household deities who had protected Rome. Both result in persecution. Both deny human beings the freedom to exercise their inherent right to profess their deepest-held beliefs. 

So what is to be done? It is unlikely that the Russian government will cave to pressure from the secular West to relax these restrictions and foster greater religious pluralism. What opportunities might there be for engagement, including with Orthodox hierarchs and theologians? Is it possible to acknowledge the unique place and role of Russian Orthodoxy while moving toward the embrace of greater religious pluralism? How can the post-Soviet pathologies within church-state relations be best diagnosed and treated? A new approach is needed if there is to be any meaningful dialogue on religious liberty in Russia.

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