The Russian Orthodox Church and Global Religious Freedom

By: Pasquale Annicchino

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has emerged as a major protagonist in conflicts over the definition of human rights, and among them of the right to freedom of religion, at the international level. Its significance in this context can be seen in the various initiatives within international organizations, and in conflicts that have often set the Russian Federation (and the Russian Orthodox Church itself) against the United States and many countries of the European Union.

Some documents approved by the Russian Orthodox Church show that there has been a systematic theoretical development that, over the years, has led the Church and its positions to reclaim a role of greater relevance in Russian society. An example of this is, as we have seen, given for instance by the “Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” approved by the Council of Bishops in August 2000 affirms the need for the renewed centrality of the Orthodox Church in Russian society and criticizes the language used by constitutional texts expressly recognizing the right to freedom of conscience seen as a “privatization” of religion.

Strong criticisms have been made against the proselytism of religious minorities, perceived as a true assault against the local church. These positions of the Orthodox Church have a real influence on the application of the regulations of the Russian Federation governing the treatment of religious groups. It is no coincidence that the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly declared Russia to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights for its treatment of certain minority religions. Essentially, despite the formal constitutional guarantees offered to minority religious groups, the material constitution indicates a regime that in reality is averse to religious freedom.

This theoretical and political paradigm has profound implications for the conceptualization of human rights by the Russian Orthodox Church which subsequently has repercussions on state policy, both domestic and international. The documents and the approach of the Russian Orthodox Church with regard to the protection of human rights, and specifically the right of religious freedom, demonstrate a deliberate attempt to denounce an international system perceived as culturally hegemonized by the discourse on rights in a Western context and which deliberately excludes “traditional” values. A classic example of this approach would be the attempt to approve at the UN level the resolution entitled “Promoting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Through a Better Understanding of Traditional Values of Humankind.” The explicitly declared Russian objective is to break the Western “ideological” monopoly on the theory and application of human rights, perceived as overly individualistic and strengthening a more communitarian conception. It is also to be added that these actions take place in an ideological framework which strongly advances the notion of “Third Rome” associated with Russia. Russia is therefore positioned in ontological contrast with “Western values” as the only country that potentially could keep the world away from apostasy and the decline of the coming anti-Christian kingdom (often equated with globalization and/or the United States). Hence the fate of the world is dependent on the Third Rome, the katechon, restraining, holding back power of the Russian empire to provide humanity with a lighthouse for salvation. This apocalyptic mentality can be seen also in comments of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church on judicial developments, for instance at the intersection of religious freedom and LGBT rights. Commenting of the recognition of the right to same-sex marriage in some countries Patriarch Kirill argued that: 

“In recent times in a number of countries the choice of sin has been approved and justified by law and those who in good conscience fight these laws imposed by a minority are repressed. This is a dangerous sign of the apocalypse and we must do everything that in the area of the Holy Rus this sin is never justified by law because that would mean that the nation has embarked on the path of self-destruction”.

A very strong position was taken at the time of the Lautsi v. Italy case (concerning the display of the crucifix in Italian public schools) by Hilarion Alfeyev, bishop and chairman of the Department of External Relations of the Church. After the first decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which found a violation of the convention in the display of the crucifix Hilarion commented: 

“We consider this practice of the ECtHR to be an attempt to impose radical secularism everywhere despite the national experience of church-state relations. The above-mentioned decision is not the only one in the practice of the Court which has increasingly shown an anti-Christian trend. Taking into account the fact that the decisions of the ECtHR have clearly lost touch with legal and historical reality in which most European live, while the Court itself has turned into an instrument promoting an ultra-liberal ideology, we believe it is very important that religious communities in Europe should be involved in a discussion concerning its work.”

In essence, we witness an attempt to create a counter-narrative of the notion of human rights, and among them the right to religious freedom, in order to produce a polycentric order where Western individualistic understanding of rights would lose their central place—an attempt which will not necessarily fail in the long term, if we consider the actions of other actors, such as China or many Muslims countries, at the global level.

More details on this subject (including bibliographies) can be found in:

Pasquale Annicchino, Law and International Religious Freedom: The Rise and Decline of the American Model (New York: Routledge, 2017).

Pasquale Annicchino, “The Geopolitics of Transnational Law and Religion,” in The Conscience Wars: Rethinking the Balance between Religion, Identity, and Equality, ed. Susanna Mancini and Michel Rosenfeld (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 258–274.

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