Religious freedom in Russia: open or shut?

An analysis of the Russian Orthodox Church's current attempt to define religious freedom through Parliament.

Gary M. Ross, Ph.D., is the associate director of public affairs and religious liberty of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

On July 14, 1993, the conservative-dominated Supreme Soviet (Russian parliament) amended the country's progressive 1990 Law on Freedom of Religion. The resulting discriminatory clauses sparked outrage among foreign churches and vigorous protests from foreign governments. President Boris Yeltsin and the law's author, Father Vyacheslav Polosin, quickly moved to moderate the crisis.

Extremely fluid, the situation could change at any moment. But even as it clarifies, we summarize below what are understood in the West to be the basic facts—and a few of the uncertain ties.

Nature of the problem

Article 14 of the amended law (see box p. 14) curtails activity in Russia by foreign religious leaders or organizations unless they are accredited by the appropriate authority in Russia or linked to an indigenous group. Currently held accreditation is apparently invalid.

Rarely mentioned but perhaps more problematic, Article 17 of the amended law stipulates situations in which religious organizations may be terminated by the Ministry of Justice. These include the organization's own decision to close and, more ominously, judicial findings of a disparity between the group's activities and Russian law.

Advocates of the amendments

Although individuals from various faiths went along with the law, and although resurgent nationalism provided an abstract accompaniment, the Russian Orthodox Church operated through parliamentary allies to accomplish the deed. From the outset, the Orthodox patriarch Alexei II pressured the deputies "to bring order to the activity of foreign religious organizations in Russia." Acknowledging the right to choose one's religion, the patriarch nevertheless insisted that "this choice must not be imposed on us from the outside." The Reverend Polosin, mentioned above as the bill's author, is an Orthodox priest who chairs Parliament's committee on freedom of conscience. But Orthodox advocacy is not unanimous. Within Russia the chief critic of the law, Gleb Yakunin (see photo), is a dissident Orthodox priest who leads the Radical Democrat faction in Parliament.

Target of the law

Obviously, the Orthodox Church feels anxious about the activities of Western religious groups, often generically referred to as "cults," and their many alleged offenses against the citizens of Russia. Opinions vary, however, as to which groups threaten Orthodoxy the most. Location on the religious spectrum (fringe versus mainstream, for in stance) may matter less than the re sourcefulness of particular fellowships in bribing converts through various gifts and in funding the rebuilding of churches and ministries. Perhaps concerned with such largesse, Orthodox leaders have convinced Parliament not to relish what normally it might welcome: the infusion of millions of dollars into the country.

Probable motives of Orthodoxy

Stated negatively, the church's mode seems defensive and protective—fear over the loss of members and potential converts to attractive, even glamorous, alternatives. But positive visions operate also. For Orthodoxy, not less than, say, for the American Baptists, a window of opportunity exists that could close at any moment: the ideological vacuum created by Communism's demise. The desire to be Russia's favored, established religion lurks, for example, in Orthodoxy's suspicion of ministry groups that would train and equip Russian educators to teach moral and religious values in the public school class rooms.

Western insensitivity

As it responds to the above crisis, the West must admit that something more than theological appeal and the proffering of material things occasionally characterizes foreign missionaries in Russia. Perhaps unconscious for the most part, it is a style of arrogance, mindless zeal, and cultural insensitivity that ignores the thousand-year history of Orthodoxy in Russia and portrays the message of Christianity as a new arrival on Russian soil.

Echoing Orthodox concerns, Baptist World Alliance leader Denton Lotz referred to the "lone ranger" evangelism of Western mission groups. Leonid Kishkovsky, an American Orthodox leader who deplores the Parliament's action against missionaries, nevertheless speaks publicly about "high profile, massive, uncontrolled American evangelism" that combines "genuine motives and woeful ignorance."

Elements of the critique

Having granted this self-made aspect of the crisis, the West can authentically reproach Parliament for its action. One argument sees that action delimiting the spiritual options and thus affronting the pluralism that religious liberty presupposes. The human rights critic bemoans Parliament's repudiation of key international instruments, such as the accords of the Commission on Security and Co operation in Europe, regarding the exchange of ideas across national borders. Western democrats applauding the blossoming of freedom in Russia advance a third criticism by asking whether Russia's commitment to democracy is really genuine enough to justify Western support.

Responses from outside Russia

Who voiced the foregoing case against Parliament's actions as the furor grew intense and worldwide in late July and early August 1993? Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, more than 100 representatives of other foreign governments, and numerous members of the U.S. Congress sent letters of protest. Among various church denominations with mission boards that objected loudly, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and its affiliated International Religious Liberty Association faxed statements of concern to officials in Russia and simultaneously convened a coalition of more than two dozen organizations to monitor developments, co ordinate responses, and identify strategies for mitigating the law if implemented. (The Russian chapter of the latter association may have been first to alert the West about the impending legislation.)

President Yeltsin's dilemma

As they rebuked Parliament, Westerners also pleaded with Yeltsin not to sign the law, thinking (perhaps wrongly) that inaction or a veto on his part would preclude its enactment. But Yeltsin's predicament—despite having announced his intention not to stand for reelection, and despite having won a recent referendum—was large. On the one hand, battling with Parliament for reforms widely considered urgent, he needed the sup port of a church whose adherents number more than 50 million and whose leaders engineered the bill. On the other hand, faithfulness to his own apparently genuine democratic values plus the need to placate the West to safeguard its 3 billion aid commitment spelled caution so long as such caution did not look like a sellout to American pressure. (Hence the concurrent dilemma of the critics themselves: dissuade Yeltsin from signing the amendments without being too conspicuous about it.)

Fallout elsewhere

What dramatized the president's dilemma was not only the larger Russian context in which it unfolded, namely the fate of the country's democratic experiment, but the still larger context of an eastern Europe no longer beholden, yet still attentive, to Russia. In large parts of that region, ascendant Orthodoxy faces problems similar to Russia's. Bulgaria, for example, currently seeks ways to counter and restrict the "new sects" entering the country. Of course, there as elsewhere Orthodoxy suffers from division, if not schism, from within, and from persistent rumors that it once collaborated with the Communists.

Developments at presstime

As Ministry goes to press, it has become apparent that President Yeltsin neither signed nor vetoed the amendments but rather referred them back to the Parliament for further consideration. The BBC reports that despite its abbreviated August sessions, the Parliament has completed this reconsideration and offered Yeltsin a revised bill (see box, P- 14).

Worst-scenario prospects

To critics driven by arguments of the kind noted above, "watered-down" terminology or compromise language will hardly suffice. Suppose, as one probably should, that some manner of restraint on foreign missionaries materializes. What to do? Pressing for time-consuming debate over the law's implementing regulations and time-consuming court challenges might permit the larger political situation to clarify, especially Yeltsin's desire to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections and his intention to promulgate a new constitution—either of which would probably go far to mitigate the crisis, but both of which apparently exceed Yeltsin's prerogative under the current constitution. Something else could throw light on the matter if not resolve it: the rumored intention of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to organize sometime in the near future an international conference on religious plural ism.

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Gary M. Ross, Ph.D., is the associate director of public affairs and religious liberty of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

November 1993

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