The result is what the letter‐writers call “an increasingly hostile environment” for non‐traditional faiths, resulting “in investigations, armed raids, nation‐wide bans on certain religious literature that had been published and read worldwide for decades, and even dissolutions and liquidations of religious organizations.” An incredible 2,000 religious organizations were subject to liquidation for failing to reregister after the year 2000. Moreover, churches have increasingly cited increased bureaucratic oversight and regulation. The State Department noted that “Many non‐traditional denominations frequently complained that they were unable to obtain venues for worship.”
Finally, attacks on individual faiths and congregations have been escalating. The Oslo‐based Forum 18 News Service explained: “The formation of Russia’s policy towards one particular form of extremism — religious extremism — may have begun hesitantly.” However, passage of the 2002 legislation “eventually led to a wide‐ranging crackdown on religious literature the authorities deemed ‘extremist’.” Religious organizations increasingly have come under attack in other ways as well.
Forum 18 compiled a long list of disturbing incidents beginning in mid‐2007:
- Baptists meeting in a movie theatre were arrested. Police claimed it was a “harmful sect.”
- The prayer hall of a Pentecostal Church was demolished.
- A Pentecostal Bible Centre was dissolved for carrying out unlicensed educational activity.
- A Methodist church was dissolved for failing to filing the required activities report.
- The moderate Islamic work The Personality of a Muslim was added to the list of banned books.
- A yeshiva, or Jewish school, was ordered dissolved.
- The public prosecutor threatened a Baptist pastor with a warning about unspecified extremist activities.
- A Lutheran congregation was raided for “extremist literature.”
- Two Baptist churches lost their legal status and another was forced from its prayer house.
- Two Baptist ministers were fined after their congregation engaged in public evangelism.
- Under government pressure, the Presbyterian Christian Theological Academy and Institute of Contemporary Judaism dissolved.
- Two yeshivas were denied an educational license.
- The Krishna Conscience Society was declared to be a “dangerous totalitarian sect.”
- Works by Muslim theologian Said Nursi were seized.
- Charges were brought against members of a Nursi reading group.
- A local Jehovah’s Witnesses group was liquidated.
- The Islamic organization Nurjular was banned.
- The Islamic organization Tablighi Jamaat was outlawed.
- The Russian Supreme Court upheld the prohibition of numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses publications.
- A local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation was banned and its meeting hall was seized.
- An investigation was opened against the Church of Scientology over the charge of extremism.
- A city court ruled that Scientology literature was extremist.
- The Russian Justice Ministry targeted 56 religious groups for liquidation for allegedly failing to file official reports. The faiths included: Armenian Apostolic, Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Nestorian, and Protestant.
It’s an imposing list. But there are more examples. Many religions and individual congregations have suffered from a raid, prosecution, banning, dissolution, arrest, penalty, restriction, seizure, investigation, confiscation, detention, or other attack from the state authorities. Non‐traditional, proselytizing faiths have suffered the most.
The European Court of Human Rights has become the final resort for some desperate Russians. In October 2006 the justices ruled for the Salvation Army. A year later the ECHR supported the Church of Scientology. Last October it again ruled against Russia and in favor of the Scientologists. In June the ECHR held that a 2004 ban on the Moscow’s Jehovah’s Witnesses violated articles on freedom of thought, conscience, worship, and assembly of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by Russia.
In the latter case the court stated that “the Moscow authorities did not act in good faith and neglected their duty of neutrality and impartiality.” Moreover, the government had interfered with “the religious organization’s right to freedom of association and also with its right to freedom of religion.”
Unfortunately, Russia does not treat decisions of the ECHR as authoritative.
Not every religion is disabled to the same degree. The Orthodox Church enjoys privileged status, which it has used against other faiths. In June the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned “that the de facto favored status of the Moscow Patriarchate Russian Orthodox Church results in difficulties for minority religious communities, particularly those officially deemed non‐traditional.”
Moreover, the Orthodox Church recently used its preferential status to encourage a blasphemy prosecution against a contemporary art exhibition entitled “Forbidden Art” held at the Sakharov museum. The government is seeking a three year jail term for organizers, a haunting throwback to Soviet restrictions on contemporary art.
In June the USCIRF warned that “Many Russian officials also proclaim that certain religious and ethnic groups are alien to Russian culture and society, thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance. In general, the Russian government has failed to address consistently or effectively the severe and chronic problem of violent and sometimes lethal hate crimes and anti‐Semitism. Numerous acts of vandalism against synagogues, churches, and mosques also go largely unpunished or are attributed to hooliganism.”
Obviously, Washington’s influence over Moscow’s internal policies is limited. Nevertheless, U.S. government officials, religious leaders, and human rights activists can offer the same simple message as the religious leaders who wrote the president: “The Russian Government should make good on Russian guarantees of freedom of religion and association for every individual and religious community, and it should honor its international human rights obligations and commitments.”
The Moscow authorities have demonstrated that they don’t care much what foreigners, or even most Russians, think. But the controversy could embarrass the Putin/Medvedev government, tarnishing the regime’s image. Since religious restrictions — in contrast to political repression — don’t strengthen Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, maybe even he would come to see the value of offering religious believers a little more space.