Top Ten Violations of the Freedom of Religion in Russia

(From 2006-2009)

The specific character of the violations of the freedom of religion lie not only in individual cases of outrage, such as murders of priests in relation to their religious activity, but also in the ubiquity of these types of violations which are perpetrated regularly all over Russia. The following list includes descriptions of the most outrageous and typical violations of the freedom of conscience and religion within the Russian Federation.

1. Open Assaults on Clergy and Church Members

a. Description of the Problem: Here we have not included cases of domestic violence towards priests, such as homicides (which occur, especially in rural areas) or those that do not involve religious motives (i.e. homicides that occur during church robberies, personal enmity, etc). We would like to look specifically at those cases where violations of the freedom of conscience manifest themselves in the most outrageous way through attacks and violence that is directed at members of the clergy or church members due to their religious affiliation. First of all, there have been numerous cases of assaults on the country’s religious minorities (mainly Protestants). Usually, an assault is preceded by the intense aggravation of religious conflict, which incites some degree of religious strife (as a rule, the members affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church tend to stand behind such situations based on their principle of regarding all non-Orthodox religious organizations as “religious sects”). Typically, law enforcement authorities rarely respond to threats received by these religious organizations and their members, not to mention their general lack of interest in investigating the assaults after they have taken place.

b. Examples

1) Murder of Father Sysoyev: On November 19, 2009, as was the norm, Father Daniil held a Thursday night biblical discussion in his small wooden church of Saint Thomas the Apostle. Sometime between 10:40 p.m. and 11:20 p.m., a thin man wearing a doctor’s mask walked into the church. He called out Daniil Sysoyev, allegedly in a “Caucasus accent.” Father Daniil emerged from the altar to face his murderer and was shot several times by the attacker, after which the culprit approached him and finished him off with one last close-range shot to the back of the neck when he was already lying helpless on the floor. A witness said the killer then ran upstairs to look for a girl who had recently converted from the Islamic faith to Christianity. He then escaped and walked away with her in a direction unknown to the witnesses. Father Daniil was taken to the hospital, where he died about an hour later. At present, the murder remains unsolved.

2) Town of Bilibino in the Chukotka Autonomous District: On March 21, 2008, at the end of the day, a man walked into the House of Prayer of the Evangelical Christian Church and called out, “I’m going to kill everyone now!” Then he took out his gun and began shooting indiscriminately. Luckily, nobody was harmed, despite the fact that the attacker was aiming at the people. One of the members later found a bullet hole in his jacket but that was about it, since all other members managed to hide or duck right in the nick of time. The attacker quickly left, having fired a full clip of bullets. The attacker was captured and subsequently identified as a local bailiff, who used his service gun to carry out the assault. Nevertheless, the case was closed shortly after and the attacker went unpunished.

3) Moscow Region: On April 15, 2007, members of the congregation of the Evangelical Christian Church in Moscow were shot at by unknown attackers using an air gun. The shots rang out from the second floor as one group of parishioners was leaving the building and another group was arriving for the next service. The shooters appeared to be two drunk young men who refused to stop firing and continued to call the church members “sectarians.” Further, they uttered threats to the effect that they know what school the pastor’s kids attended and so on. During the incident, one of the congregants suffered from a leg wound after a bullet penetrated a vein. He was taken to a hospital, where he underwent surgery. Neither of the culprits have been identified nor brought to justice.

2. Physical Destruction or Desecration of Church Buildings

a. Description of the Problem: There are many cases when church buildings or rented meeting and worship halls have been set on fire by unknown culprits. It is exclusively non-Orthodox churches that have experienced such cases of arson, with such cases usually preceded by some sort of public campaign that was intended to stir up religious strife in the area where the church building was located. In this same category, we also include the desecration of church buildings (i.e. broken windows, offensive graffiti on the walls of the church, vandalism inside the building). It is almost never the case that local law enforcement officers pursue any actions to track down and charge the culprits with a criminal offense.

b. Examples

1) The Assembly of God Pentecostal Church (Moscow): During the night of March 25, 2007, unidentified persons set fire to the building owned by the Assembly of God Pentacostal Church, which was then being reconstructed for use as the group’s future house of worship. According to the eyewitnesses’ accounts, the arson was premeditated – they heard a popping sound and saw suspicious white packets lying around the building, when it suddenly exploded and the building’s roof exploded into fire from all sides. The firemen’s original assessment that a faulty fuse might have caused the fire was not confirmed since the building lacked electricity. Moreover, the firemen eventually found the place of the explosion’s origin, traces of acetone and a canister with traces of an inflammable substance in a nearby litter bin. Regardless of numerous appeals on the part of the Church, the authorities refused to open up criminal proceedings in these regards.

2) Saratov: The worship hall of the “Word of Life,” an Evangelical Chistian Church was set on fire on January 23, 2008. It burned down, along with an adjacent smaller 200-square-meter building used for gatherings and where the Church’s Bible school and the youth office were located. The fire also destroyed all of the sound equipment and computers that belonged to the Church. None of this electrical equipment could have started the fire because everything was unplugged at the time it began. Experts have not ruled out the possibility that this was a case of arson. Prior to the accident, the Protestant Church had frequently received threats.

3. Restrictions and Prohibitions of the Rights to Religious Assembly and Holding Worship Services

a. Description of the Problem: The Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates the right to exercise the freedom of peaceful assembly. The law “On assembly…” adopted in pursuance of above provision stipulates a procedure involving notification and authorization with respect to holding outdoor public assembly. However, the law does not indicate any procedure regarding public worship services, while the Freedom of Conscience Act does not provide any requirement to obtain permission from the local authorities in order to do so. These circumstances create a loophole for abuse on the part of law enforcement officers whereby they feel entitled to terminate both outdoor and indoor mass religious activities, including those held in the apartments of individual church members.

b. Examples

1) Klintsy, Bryansk Region: On July 12, 2008, a group of young men, including a pastor and a deacon, all of whom are members of the Evangelical Christian Church, was detained by law enforcement officers merely because they were riding bicycles, wearing t-shirts that read “Time To Choose,” and looking for a spot to take a group photo in the town’s central square. Although no resistance was shown on the part of the church members, the police officers acted with excessive force; and as a result, the deacon’s collarbone was broken. In addition, the deacon was denied medical aid while being kept in lock-up at the police district office. After a “routine identity check,” all detained members were released. To date, none of the police officers involved has received any form of punishment.

2) Tomsk: In June 2009, “Celebration,” an Evangelical Christian Church in Tomsk, was fined 1000 roubles for conducting a religious service in a rented meeting hall at a local cultural center building without having first notified the municipal authorities. The Church was also incriminated for distributing flyers without first receiving permission from local authorities. The prosecution department made the point that, notwithstanding anything included in the Freedom of Conscience Act, the Church was obligated to obtain permission from local authorities prior to conducting any religious activity in their meeting place.

4. Liquidating Religious Organizations Without Due Legal Proceedings

a. Description of the Problem: Article 21-2 of the Law on the State Registration of Legal Entities provides that any legal entity that fails to provide the reporting documentation required by law and has not had any activity in at least one of its bank accounts in the previous 12 months shall be declared to be a legal entity that has terminated its activities (in other words, an inactive legal entity). Such a legal entity shall be struck off the State Register of Legal Entities by the local tax department without the need for a court judgment or preliminary notification on the part of the legal entity in question. Information about an organization’s removal from the State Register of Legal Entities is only published in the “Bulletin of State Registration” (of which the circulation is only 1000 copies). The Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations (“the Religion Act”) states that a religious organization can only be dissolved by a court judgment in the case of a serious violation of legislation. On the other hand, the Law on the State Registration of Legal Entities stipulates that any legal entity can be dissolved by simply striking it off the State Register.

b. Examples

1) Town of Balashov: In the 1990s, the Local Religious Organization of Evangelical Christians – Baptists was registered as a legal entity. The Baptist religious community has existed in the town for over 100 years. In August 2007, the Church was informed that it was stripped of its status as a legal entity and struck off the State Register of Legal Entities, despite the fact that its activities have continued uninterrupted. On December 29, 2008, the Arbitration Court of the Saratov Region ruled in favor of the Church and recognized the unlawful exclusion of the Church from the Register of Legal Entities.

2) Lublino: The Local Religious Organization of Evangelical Christians of Lublino was registered in 1999. The Church itself was established at the end of the 19th century and has, therefore, existed for over a century. On January 18, 2008, the Tax Department of the City of Moscow made a preliminary decision to strike the Church off the State Register of Legal Entities on the grounds that the Church allegedly failed to provide the reporting documentation required by law and had not operated its bank accounts within the previous 12 months.

5. Dissolving Non-Orthodox Religious Organizations for Religious Teaching

a. Description of the Problem: An unfortunate situation is taking shape in Russia whereby the regular activities of a religious body may result in it consequently being dissolved. One of the essential characteristics of a religious organization is the teaching of the Gospel to its followers. The most widespread forms of teaching are Sunday schools, which, for instance, are also part of each Orthodox church.

In accordance with Article 6 of the Law “On Freedom of Conscience and On Religious Organizations,” religious teaching and the upbringing of church parishioners is an essential part of a religious organization, and an organization that lacks this may not be regarded as a religious organization at all. That said, the law does not, in any way, demarcate what form such teaching and upbringing should take, which means it may occur in the form of sermons, talks, seminars or lectures. The law provides that the direct teaching of religion is possible without having to obtain a license or any permission whatsoever. The licensing of educational activities is only required with respect to professional training, whereas the teaching of religion does not fall into this category. Such restrictions are not necessary in a democratic society. Nevertheless, there are cases when law enforcement agencies try to dissolve non-Russian Orthodox religious organizations for the fact that they are engaged in teaching religion.

b. Examples

1) Smolensk: In January 2008, at the request of a Russian Orthodox bishop, the regional Public Prosecutor's Office, the Organized Crime Police, the Department for the Protection of Minors, the Department of Education, and the regular police forces in Smolensk conducted a series of check-ups on a local Methodist church. They forced the Church to remove the curriculum of the missionary college from its website. The Russian Orthodox Bishop Ignati (Punin) of Vyazma claimed that the college “does not aim to bring about the rebirth of the spiritual and moral foundations of the life of the Russian people, but its spiritual destruction.” He then asked the Regional Public Prosecutor “to take the necessary measures to defend the inhabitants of our city, particularly the youth, from this pseudo-religious organization.” At the request of Smolensk's auxiliary Orthodox bishop, the government departments in this western Russian region began a series of check-ups on the Methodist church on January 30. Arguing that such an institution requires an education license in order to operate, the Regional Public Prosecutor's Office forced the Church to remove its plans for a missionary college from its website. In another surprise development, however, the case against the Church abruptly switched focus from the planned missionary college to its functioning Sunday school. During the investigation, the Smolensk Regional Organized Crime Police Unit established that the Methodists were allegedly breaking the law by conducting “educational activity in a Sunday school, called ‘Our Little Hearts’, without a license.” On March 24, 2008, the Smolensk Regional Court dissolved the Smolensk United Methodist Church in response to a suit filed by the Regional Public Prosecutor's Office. On June 10, 2008, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation quashed the lower court’s decision and dismissed the case since there was a lack of corpus delicti (proof that a crime has been committed) in the religious teaching and due to the fact this activity does not require a license.

2) Town of Novocheboksarsk in the Chuvash Republic: On May 28, 2007, the City Prosecutor of Novocheboksarsky, Chuvash Republic, approached the court to file a lawsuit and request the liquidation of the Biblical Center of the Chuvash Republic of the Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals). The grounds for his claim was that the Biblical Center, as alleged by the Prosecutor, was engaging in educational activities without having the appropriate state license. The Biblical Center had established a Sunday school for children and the “Mid-Volga Biblical College” for adults. These two institutions were not registered as legal entities. The courses included, among others, the following disciplines: theology (Christian Pentecostal teaching), the history of Christianity, overview of the Scriptures, music theory, conductors’ courses, choirmasters’ courses, apologetics, history of the brotherhood, evangelism and discipleship, etc.

Repeated inspections of the Biblical Center began back in April 2007. The Center’s director noted that the inspections were conducted by public officers from the prosecutor’s office and representatives of the Federal Security Service. What came as the greatest surprise to the Center was that the officials were searching for extremist literature on the Center’s premises. Naturally, they found nothing, nor did they find any “disreputable ties” with the West. On August 3, 2007, the Supreme Court of the Chuvash Republic ruled in favor of the Biblical Center’s liquidation.

6. Oppressing Religious Organizations on Grounds of Counteracting Extremism

a. Description of the Problem: The pressing issue of counteracting terrorism is often used as a pretext for cracking down on unwanted religious organizations. As a result, all non-Russian Orthodox religions could possibly be considered in this light. Moreover, in 2000, when the Concept for National Security was adopted, one of its aspects declared that the national security of Russia should be ensured, in particular, by opposing “the negative influence of foreign religious organizations and missionaries.” Besides, religious organizations have become a “scapegoat” which enable FSB authorities to report success in its fight against terrorism by demonstrating an impressive number of such “victories.”

b. Examples

1) Moscow: On June 25, 2009, the Petrovsky Interdistrict Prosecutor’s Office issued the minister of the “Novoguireevo” Evangelic Christian Baptist Church (ECB) “a warning on the inadmissibility of extremist activities.” The warning, however, failed to mention any instance of a definite breach of law on the part of the Church. The Prosecutor’s Office also ran checks on other religious associations operating in the Petrosky District, but such a warning was unexpectedly issued exclusively to the Baptist Church. According to current Russian legislation, the receipt of a second warning within a 12-month duration would entail the dissolution of the religious organization, according to the established procedure.

2) Krasnodar Region: On March 11, 2009, the Prosecutor of the Krasnodar Region (Krai) filed a court case that affects the Jehovah Witness community. The authorities claimed that three issues of the Watch Tower magazine and a book called “Getting Nearer to Jehovah” should be labeled as extremist literature. In an attempt to corroborate the claim, the Prosecutor’s staff presented the court with research conducted by an expert from the Ministry of Interior of the Krasnodarsk Region and initiated by the local department of the FSB. The expert drew the conclusion that the examined Jehovah Witness’ texts contained calls for violence and religious strife, in addition to an abasement of human dignity. The case is currently under consideration by and pending a decision from the court.

7. The Incitement of Religious Discord by the Mass Media

a. Description of the Problem: The so-called “hate speech” that is aimed at non-Orthodox religious organizations is one of the most pressing issues in Russia today. The mass media is churning out newspaper articles, TV reports and Internet blogs with the intention of scaring the public into fear over “destructive sects,” which is a generalized label for all non-Russian Orthodox religious organizations. Behind publications of this nature stand either the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church themselves or so-called “sect-experts” or “sect-fighters” who appear to be groups of pseudo-scientists affiliated with the ROC or the GONGO organization. The constant aggravation of religious issues gives way to incitement of religious feuding amongst Orthodox believers and people of other denominations. It is namely this method, rooted in the belief of an “exclusively Orthodox Russia,” that has been chosen by the Russian Orthodox Church in its fight for its flock.

b. Examples

1) Murmansk Region: One of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church of Murmansk Region has been repeatedly attempting to stir up religious enmity towards the non-Orthodox religious organizations, including the Christian Evangelical Church of Murmansk. The Orthodox priest has initiated a series of publications in local newspapers, which openly incite inter-religious conflict. For example, an article headlined “3,000 Signatures Against A Religious Standoff in the Arctic Region’s Capital” appeared in the issue of the newspaper Arguments and Facts of Murmansk on December 3, 2008. In the article, A. Tuchkov attempted to scare Murmansk residents with the “dreadful atrocities” purportedly perpetrated by members of the Protestant Church. In his own words, the Church appeared to be one of the most dangerous “sects” in which several members had been forced to commit suicide by their own leaders. Tuchkov told a few stories to “prove” his allegations – one about a female doctor from Yaroslavl who voluntarily set herself on fire shortly after she had been accepted into the Church, and another where the members of the Church in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) were allegedly brought to trial for torturing a 10-year-old boy, who had been found beaten to death. The Protestant Church has over 1000 members in the region and each of them has been affected by the libelous defamation which has ruined their families’ reputations for supposedly being members of “one of the most dangerous sects,” according to the Orthodox priest.

2) Tula: A Tula-based information center on sectarian issues uses its website ( to publish materials of an extremely insulting nature to the adherents of different Christian denominations and other religions. One of the main authors of the site appears to be an employee of the Missionary Department of the Tula Episcopate of ROC named Alexey Yarasov. He is a notorious figure, known for articles he published in 2007 that gave rise to a serious inter-confessional conflict. In a number of publications, Yarasov called the Pentecostal churches potential “spies” and “the most dangerous sects.” The insulting publications brought about attacks on Protestant Houses of Prayer, numerous arson attempts and threats aimed at local member of Protestant churches.

8. Deprivation of the Property of Religious Organizations

a. Description of the Problem: After the 1917 revolution, all of the real estate property owned by religious organizations was nationalized by the State and used by the government as it saw fit – from housing museums inside former churches to utilizing them for concentration camps (GULAG), as was the case for the Solovetsk Monastery – the largest monastery found in pre-revolution Russia. After the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the buildings were gradually repatriated to religious organizations with the State formally retaining the property rights and respective religious organizations being granted the right to permanent perpetual use. First of all, the structures that transferred to religious organizations were those that were in the poorest condition or disrepair since the State had no means whatsoever to maintain them. For many years, religious communities have taken great efforts to renovate these churches and have invested considerable funds in the process. The State partially funded the restoration of those churches that were recognized as national architectural landmarks. But religious organizations had to shoulder the bulk of the financing needed, not to mention the amount of work required. However, in the past few years, we have observed the reversal of this process, whereby more church buildings that have already been restored are being reclaimed by the government without reason or compensation. It goes without question that we are only speaking about non-Orthodox religious organizations in this regard.

b. Examples

1) Suzdal: The Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) is one of the legal heirs of the 1000-year Russian Orthodox faith. The ROAC, in constrast with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), believes that after the 1925 arrest of the lawful Primate of the Russian Church and Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal See, the Church lost canonic leadership, thus rendering all of its eparchies temporarily autonomous. During the years under Soviet reign, ROAC was deemed illegal by the State. In 1991, the independent Russian State decided to grant ROAC the free use of vacant and derelict churches in Suzdal, most of which were literally in ruins (proper legal agreements signed). Those churches were then restored with the means of the ROAC itself. In 2007, the local administration of the Federal Agency for Management of State Property for the Vladimir Region approached the Arbitration Court of the Vladimir Region to launch legal proceedings, demanding the withdrawal of the right to the indefinite use of ten Suzdal churches by the ROAC community. This ultimately resulted in the fact that today, ROAC no longer owns a single church in Suzdal. In 2009, the Arbitration Court of Vladimir Region decided to seize all ten churches from the ROAC’s congregations in the city of Suzdal. On September 10, 2009, at all of these churches, the bailiff/ enforcement officer of the Federal Bailiff Service for the Vladimir Region forced both their clergy and congregants to vacate the premises and then officially sealed the respective churches.

2) Krasnodar Region, Lutheran Church: On November 21, 2009, the authorities notified the Church that it would be terminating the agreement for the indefinite use of the church building, which is the only one in the region. They were informed that the premises were to be vacated by December 21; otherwise, they will be forcefully evicted. The authorities referred to the agreement that states that any party is entitled to terminate the indefinite use agreement at any time upon providing written notification to the other party one month in advance, in the case that another notification period is not stipulated by the agreement. The Krasnodar Regional Administration purportedly believes that the property was being used ineffectively.

9. Violations of the Rights of Foreign Missionaries

a. Description of the Problem: The rapid spread of Protestantism in the 1990s led to evangelistic churches’ penetration of the social and cultural domains that are sometimes disregarded by bureaucrats and traditional religions. At the same time, it is next to impossible to restrict Protestant churches’ activities since congregations are registered in accordance with the law, and many of them have already been functioning for more than ten years. At the dawning of a new era, when the authorities are strengthening their “executive chain of command,” the FSB has undertaken to control missionary activity all across the country, as indicated in public statements made by both Protestants and State officials. The firm political stance taken by State Security officials is officially explained in a way that indicates that missionaries conduct or may conduct “subversive extremist activities” among the country’s population. In the eyes of the general public, the FSB stands for patriotic values when it proceeds to expel foreigners, especially followers of the evil “West” that are, thus, dangerous for the national Orthodox faith. The officials and Secret Service agents have not been met with resistance in their anti-missionary activity from the public nor from missionaries and their supportive congregants. Anti-missionary policy is a fertile ground for gung-ho patriotic calls for the “cleansing” of Russia from its alleged or real enemies, and this allows State officials to emerge victorious from the fight without ever having fired a shot – something that cannot be so quickly achieved when it comes to fighting corruption or Chechen rebels.

b. Example

1) Ivanavo Region: On May 22, 2009, the Ivanovo Region Court considered a claim by an American missionary, Chris Willeke, for invalidating the decision with respect to the undesirability of his presence in Russia. Despite the fact that the representative of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) for the Ivanovo Region failed to explain exactly in what way Chris had broken Russian law, he claimed that his “presence within the territory of the Russian Federation poses a potential threat to the security of the Russian Federation” and that “the court has no right to interfere” with the powers of and decisions taken by the FSB. The court dismissed the missionary’s claim, ruling instead that it considers the FSB’s decisions to be lawful.

10. Breaking the Secular Education Principle: Forcing the Orthodox Christian Faith in Schools as Lessons or Rituals

a. Description of the Problem: The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is trying to influence the minds of the Russian population with its aspiration to fill the vacant spot in the common ideology left after the demise of Communism, playing up to the same concept of ideological monopoly and elimination of any dissidence. For many years, the ROC has been trying to introduce a school subject that would teach the essentials of Orthodox Christianity. Guised as a plain teaching experiment, Orthodox Christianity is now being taught in high schools in many regions, starting in the second grade. However, behind the guise of teaching “cultural studies,” often nothing other than the Orthodox Gospel is being taught; yet attendance of this class remains obligatory for everyone. Such open disregard for the rights of religious minority rights leads to various religious conflicts amongst parents and school students.

b. Examples

1) Village of Gribanovsky in the Voronezh Region: The son of Aleksey Perov (the pastor of the Protestant Church), David Perov, was 7 years old at the time of these events. On September 3, 2007, at 8:00 a.m., David attended his first class. It so happened that in the classroom, the Russian Orthodox Priest Muravyev, dressed in his robe, began to conduct a religious ceremony. The priest laid a paper icon on each of the desks in the front row. Then he began to read out prayers in the Old Slavonic language. The priest circled the classroom with incense lit and sprinkled the classroom and game room with holy water, urging students to pray. The priest invited the children to come and kiss the crucifix that had been used during the ceremony. The children crowded around and began to approach and kiss the crucifix. David, who did not want to kiss the crucifix, “was dragged by the arms and pushed towards the cross” by the other children, where he was forced to kiss the crucifix, though he refused. On the same day, during the recess break between lessons, “he was beaten by the other boys” in the game room because he refused to kiss the crucifix or make the sign of the cross when requested. At this time, an application has been lodged with the ECtHR.

2) Schebekino District of the Belgorod Region: Schools in the Belogorod Region have introduced a mandatory subject called “The Essentials of Orthodox Culture,” which starts in the second grade. The subject is intended to shape a common mindset oriented towards the Russian Orthodox Church, a doctrine that carries into almost all of the school’s scientific and humanitarian subjects of study. In these regards, no exceptions whatsoever are made for non-Orthodox students. The parents of Daniil Zis and Timofey Rusakov are Christians of the Evangelical Faith. Their children attend the Belyansk High School in the Schebekino District of Belgorod Region. In September 2009, the parents submitted a request to the school’s administration asking that the subject be dropped from their children’s study curriculum; but they received a reply that stated “non-attendance of lessons on the Orthodox Culture is a breach of Federal Law … in the case that your son continues to refuse to attend the ‘Orthodox Culture’ lessons, he may receive a failing mark in this subject and be considered a non-achiever….” The parents have filed a petition with the court. The case is currently under consideration by and pending a decision from the court.

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