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Russian Law on Religion: Between the Freedom and Discrimination

June 8, 2010
Roman Lunkin

The Law on Freedom of Conscience of the USSR was adopted in 1990 and followed with the passing of the Law on Freedom of Conscience of the RSFSR (Russian Federation) in 1990. As the first law of this kind in Russia, it did not stipulate any restrictions regarding the registration and activities of religious associations and groups. However, precisely because of such liberalism, this law was criticized heavily. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was one of the main critics who believed at that time, and still believes to this day, that it was namely the Law on Freedom of Conscience of 1990 that opened the gates to allow many "foreign sects and missionaries" into the country and filled Russia with preachers who brought "a spirituality that is alien to Russians."

Secular authorities, led by President Boris Yeltsin, were seeking ideological support that would be historically grounded, thereby allowing them to become stronger and appear more legitimate. At the same time, the top religious officials of the ROC demanded penitence and the rectification of the injustice the Church was subject to throughout decades of Soviet persecution. The ROC was also interested in the restitution of its property and buildings, as well as governmental support and the support of its business, which it also carried out under the state's influence.

Beginning in 1993, a number of legislative bills were put forward which aimed to eliminate the principle of the equality of religions. Among them were bills that supported the "traditional" religions (Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism), granting them various privileges, while applying restrictions to the activities of religious minorities and foreign missionaries, thereby amending the Law on the Freedom of Conscience of 1990. The political struggle that took place around the preparation and adoption of the Law on the Freedom of Conscience in 1997 received extensive coverage both in English and Russian media sources, so we will only bring up a few points on the adoption and impact of this particular law.

First of all, there was no consolidated opinion among the authorities (the presidential administration and the State Duma Committee for Relations with Non-Governmental Organizations and Religious Associations) regarding the necessity of the restrictions on the activities of religious minorities and any increase in legislative pressure. The most discriminatory proposals were rejected as a result of efforts made by human rights advocates, the leaders of non-Orthodox religious associations, democratically minded deputies of the State Duma, and the members of the presidential administration of Boris Yeltsin. For example, Metropolitan Kirill, who was at that time the Head of the Department for External Church Relations (currently Patriarch Kirill), was actively involved in the in the drafting of the bill and proposed the introduction of a 50-year rule for all religious associations. In order to become eligible to receive the status of a legal entity, an organization must offer proof that it existed in Russia at least 50 years ago. In the Law adopted in 1997, the required term of existence on a religious organization's part in order to obtain the right to become a legal entity was eventually set at 15 years.

The restrictions imposed by the Law on Freedom of Conscience in 1997 caused a storm of criticism in the West and in Russia, coming from both the legal and the human rights community. The law essentially divided organizations into traditional (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) and non-traditional (all the rest). The procedures involved in the establishment of an organization were changed substantially, reducing the eligibility for founders and members.

The right to establish a local religious organization has been recognized as only applying to Russian citizens (Article 9). Foreign nationals and stateless citizens (including displaced persons) may only be considered participants in a religious organization provided their permanent residence is on the territory of the Russian Federation (Article 3). The Law also introduced a new definition of a religious group, which implies a voluntary association of individuals formed for the purpose of the collective practice and proliferation of their faith, operating without having undertaken state registration or having obtained the same legal foundation and capacity of a legal entity (Article 7). On the one hand, this legal provision vested in the religious associations the right to operate legally, without being subject to state registration, which is certainly a positive development. However, on the other hand, it established the 15-year "probation" period with respect to the activity of such religious associations operating on the territory of the Russian Federation (§ 5, Article 11).

In order to overcome the negative consequences of the required 15-year period, lawyers A.V. Pchelintsev, V. V. Ryakhovsky and G.A. Krylova prepared a complaint for submission to the court on behalf of the "Proslavleniye" Pentecostal Church (in Abakan, Republic of Khakassia). Around the same time, another similar complaint was received by the court from the members of a religious community of Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Yaroslavl. Both complaints were combined into a single legal procedure and after a lengthy preliminary study, were finally considered in the course of proceedings by the Constitutional Court on October 21, 1999. In both cases, the Court was tasked with considering the constitutional validity of certain provisions of Article 27 of the Law of 1997, which restricted the rights of local religious organizations that do not belong to more centralized structures and have no documents to prove they had been active on the territory of the Russian Federation for at least 15 years. On November 23, 1999, the Court found that the provisions of the law complained of were indeed of constitutional validity. However, the judges were compelled to provide their interpretation of these provisions which, in essence, amounted to recognition of the contrary.

According to the decision of the Constitutional Court, the provisions of the law referred to are constitutionally valid only insofar as they are "in respect of their effect towards those religious organizations established before the coming into force of this Federal Law, as well as local religious organizations that are integrated within the centralized structure of a religious organization, which implies that such religious organizations are entitled to rights as legal entities in full, without having to confirm the fifteen-year minimum term of existence on the territory of the Russian Federation or without undergoing an annual registration." Following this decision of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, any community can essentially register under a centralized religious organization, thereby obtaining the full rights of a legal entity.

The combined efforts on the part of public and religious figures--and especially the non-Orthodox Christian denominations (Protestants and Catholics)--helped to overcome almost all the negative consequences of the Law of 1997, the adoption of which otherwise seemed to have put an end to religious freedom in Russia. The required 15-year period began to apply only to a relatively small number of independent religious groups, as well as certain new religious movements, which tend to make do without receiving mandatory registration.

With respect to the provision on mandatory re-registration of all religious associations under the Law of 1997, the term required to undergo this process was eventually extended to 2001. Most of the non-Orthodox communities managed to complete this procedure. At the same time, the churches that experienced the most problems included some of the largest parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is also worth noting that, in the 1990s, many regions of Russia adopted separate local laws to regulate missionary activity, including toughening the requirements for missionaries and introducing mandatory notification of the authorities about their activities. However, following the adoption of the Law of 1997 up until the beginning of this century, most of the local laws on missionary activities were repealed as a part of the process of "bringing the legislation of the entities of the Russian Federation in line with that of the Federal legislation" (at present, the only existing local law on missionary activity that remains is in the Belgorod region).

The outcome of the first decade of religious freedom in independent Russia was the formation of legislation that would allow religious groups to exist in accordance with democratic standards. That is why the Law on Freedom of Conscience of 1997 eventually became a symbol of stability in terms of legislation, given the constantly evolving threats to the freedom of conscience and the numerous attempts that have been made to alter the law. However, the law managed to lay the foundation for an informal, extralegal discrimination of "non-traditional" religious communities, with the result being that religious minorities were being deprived of their leases, expelled from social institutions, and subject to suppression regarding their missionary and social activities. All these cases of prosecution have become the basis for the formation of juridical practice on the freedom of conscience in Russia, as well as the grounds for numerous complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (the first complaint was filed in 2001 by the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army, which, in 1999, was refused the right to re-registration by the Department of Justice in Moscow, while the court recognized the organization as one of a "paramilitary" nature. In 2006, the European Court ruled in favor of the Salvation Army; however, it was only in 2009 that the organization was finally permitted to complete the re-registration procedure in Moscow).

The proclamation of the four traditional religions in Russia and of Orthodox Christianity as one of the symbols of state ideology has become a largely informal phenomenon that has not been directly stipulated in the legislation. The Constitution of the Russian Federation and the Law on Freedom of Conscience of 1997 presented obstacles for any attempts to change the secular character of the state officially, and the discrimination against the country's religious minorities based on the xenophobic ideology of authorities that is illegal and can be disputed in the courts.

Slavic Center for Law and Justice
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