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Religion and State After 2000 in Putin’s Era: The Legislation and the Reasons of the Discrimination of Believers

July 7, 2010
Roman Lunkin

After 2000, the integration of the Russian Orthodox Church into the current political and ideological agenda became evident. Also, a particular understanding of “spiritual security” was introduced for the purpose of fighting against missionary activity and a number of religious minorities.

The toughened policies introduced under President Vladimir Putin led to many social and humanitarian programs being shut down (and the procedures required to clear humanitarian aid shipments were also toughened), especially those conducted by or involving Protestant churches. For many non-orthodox Christians and new religious movements, it became difficult to rent space for worship services, obtain land plots or build Houses of Prayer. At the same time, in many regions, there were explicit attempts to hamper all existing construction works commenced by the local religious groups. Muslim groups, more than any other non-Christian religious group, received the most monitoring and special attention from the authorities. The official Muslim communities that belonged to the unions already recognized by the government began to receive more governmental supervision, while the members of independent Muslim groups felt more pressure from law enforcement agencies, which began conducting repeated audits.

The clamping down on foreign influences and “sects” effectively set the tone for the Kremlin’s policy and became one of the main phobias during Putin’s presidential term, although these ideas had been voiced before he came to power and are still in place now that he has left office. The Concept of National Security of Russia, adopted in 2000 under Putin’s presidency, listed fighting against sectarian and missionary activity among the State’s measures to counteract foreign threats. It reads as follows:

“In order to enhance the national security of the Russian Federation, we must protect our cultural and spiritual legacy, morals, historical traditions and social standards … form state policies on the spiritual nurturing and moral education of our people, ban the use of airtime and electronic media for broadcasting programs that promote violence and the exploitation of base and immoral subjects, as well as counteract the negative influence of foreign religious organizations and missionaries.”
The Concept of 1997 contained a more defined statement on the “crucial role of the Russian Orthodox Church and churches of other denominations in the maintenance and preservation of our spiritual values.” In 1997, a statement heavily influenced by the Moscow Patriarchate was introduced to the Concept. It reads as follows: “It is important to consider the destructive role played by various religious sects and the damage that they cause to the spiritual life of our society, thereby posing a direct threat to the lives and health of the citizens of Russia, which is often used to conceal illegal activities.”

In the course of Putin’s presidential term, a trend of taking administrative measures in relation to missionaries and religious minorities began to take form. In 2002, the campaign to deport all foreign preachers from Russia reached its peak with a record-high number of 18 religious figures deported. Between 2000 and 2008, there were about 100 missionaries deported from Russia for various reasons or without being given any reason at all. Most of the deportees, apart from the Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and Buddhists, were members of evangelical Christian associations and missions. Most active clergy also tended to be deported, often without being given any explanation. Among the deportees were such prominent religious figures as Father Stefano Caprio, the rector of a Catholic parish in the city of Vladimir; and the missionary-evangelist Leo Mårtensson, who was an employee of the mission "The Light of the East" and the author of the translation of the Gospel into the Adyg language (he carried out his work in the Republic of Adygea and the Krasnodar region). Paul Kim, a Korean-American citizen of the USA whose visa was revoked by the authorities in February 2002, was also amongst those deported (he was the founder of the National Kalmyk Church of Evangelical Christian Missionary Union). Talipov Tahir, a citizen of Latvia, who is a Baptist and the founder of an independent Tatar evangelical community, was deported in late November 2003. He had served as the leader of the Church in Tatarstan since the beginning of the 1990s. The accusation made against Talipov was that the views upheld by his church “do not correspond with the interests of the country and are of an extremist nature, thereby undermining the stability of interfaith relations and the interethnic situation in Russia.”

Another example of this happening, which took place in 2005-2006, involved four groups of American citizens invited by the “Resurrection” Church of Evangelical Christian Baptists (the Church is part of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists), who were deported from the city of Ivanovo. They were detained while attending a religious meeting with local church members directly in the church building, at which time they were presented with a deportation order. At the same time, the local television channel ran coverage of the situation in the news, showing film footage accompanied by commentaries that the detained American missionaries and church members (one of them a former U.S. Senator) used their religious visas to come to Russia and lure children into their church. Local newspapers printed a press release from the regional Office of the Federal Security Service (FSB) regarding the deportation of the group of missionaries, claiming that they had violated visa regulations.

Work on a new draft law aimed at restricting missionary activity also began during the presidency of Vladimir Putin and marked a continuation of the anti-missionary policies. The road to creating this draft law began in 2000 when Putin adopted the Concept of National Security of Russia, which contained a chapter on “spiritual security” and the necessity to retain control and monitoring of missionary activity within the country. Following the adoption of the Concept, the Government of the Russian Federation charged the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation (MOJ RF) with the responsibility of drafting the bill. In 2006, the Ministry of Justice presented the draft law “On amendments to a number of federal laws to counter illegal missionary activity” for the consideration of and approval by numerous religious organizations. This draft was immediately and unanimously rejected by all religious groups, including Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Protestants, Jews and other groups, at the session of a government Commission on religious associations, which was being supervised by the current president of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev at that time.

The draft bill of 2006 proposed amending the Law “On the freedom of conscience and religious organizations” with an Article 17(1) (Article 18(1) at present), which states, in particular (in clause 3), that missionary activity may be conducted by the ministers of religious organizations and the members of its governing bodies. The ministers and the members of the governing body must carry a document certifying their status, and “other persons” must carry a written permit issued by the governing body of the respective organizations and evidence of their permission to preach. In addition, all missionaries must submit a number of documents to the respective territorial agencies of the federal state registration body. Namely, these documents include a notice of intention to conduct missionary activity, personal identification documents, and a document issued by the governing body of the religious organization. Foreign nationals are required to submit a visa or proof of their registration. The draft bill of 2006 also states that any form of preaching within 100 meters of a building belonging to a religious organization of a different denomination is prohibited. The prohibition of missionary activity “directed at people who are experiencing difficult life situations and involving any promise to help them resolve such a situation” was one of the most unique precedents in Russian legislation.

The increasing expression of state support for Orthodox Christianity along with the constant exertion of pressure on religious minorities became the main staples in the rhetoric of government officials. During the term of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the authorities nevertheless failed in their attempts to fully abolish religious freedom in Russia. In the end, the law on missionary work was not adopted and the Russian Orthodox Church did not become the official state church. Also, no serious restrictions at the legislative level were imposed on the rights of religious minorities. Moreover, religious groups (e.g. Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.) that held their registration and property since the 1990s have retained their legal status since that time. As the second largest congregation after the Orthodox Christians, Protestants marked a significant event in 2006 when one of their members – Sergei Ryakhovsky, a member of the Pentecostal Church – was selected as a member of the Public Chamber of Russia (an arms-length high-profile advisory body composed of public figures). To this day, he continues to represent the Church there. The authoritarian trends seen in the Putin era proved to be somewhat weak, and the government's actions were inconsistent and contradictory.

Slavic Center for Law and Justice
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