When the Soviet Union sank, human liberty dramatically increased. The great totalitarian tyranny that had consumed millions of its own apparatchiks and tens of millions of its other citizens was gone.
However, the initial years of chaotic liberty have been replaced by ever more stifling authoritarianism. The negative impact has been most obviously felt in the political realm. According to last year's State Department human rights assessment: "There were numerous reports of governmental and societal human rights problems and abuses during the year." The list of examples is long and distressing.
Freedom House rates Moscow as "not free."
The country holds elections but, says Freedom House, "is not an electoral democracy." Freedom House offers a similar list of human rights abuses, including restrictions on the media, pervasive corruption, limits on freedom of assembly and association, and a subservient judiciary.
Unfortunately, religious liberty also is coming under pressure. The Russian constitution formally protects religious freedom and equality, but, noted the State Department last fall, "the government did not always respect those provisions." There long have been some limits to this most basic freedom.
Freedom House explained:
Freedom of religion is respected unevenly. A 1997 law on religion gives the state extensive control and makes it difficult for new or independent congregations to operate. Orthodox Christianity has a privileged position, and in 2009 the president authorized religious instruction in the public schools. Regional authorities continue to harass nontraditional groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. In February 2009, the Justice Ministry empowered an Expert Religious Studies Council to investigate religious organizations for extremism and other possible offenses.
The State Department made many of the same points. It explained that there was "generally free practice of religion for most of the population," but some religious minorities found their rights to be restricted. State also pointed to the 1997 legislation "On Freedom of Conscience and Association," warning that its provisions "continued to seriously disadvantage some religious groups viewed as non-traditional." The Federal Security Service (FSS), which has replaced the FBI, increasingly has viewed some faiths as threats to Russian security.
Moreover, the government is increasingly using the Extremism Law passed in June 2002 to persecute nontraditional religions. A group of U.S. religious leaders recently raised the alarm about this dangerous trend in a letter to the president.
Undoubtedly, examples of dangerous extremism exist in Russia. However, the legislation bans far more than violent groups. For instance, the definition of extremism includes "public defamation of any person on duty holding a public office in the Russian Federation" and "infringement on life of a public official or community leader committed with a view of termination of his public or other political activity."
In March a court in the city of Surgut upheld the seizure of Scientology books and materials as "extremist." It was an ex parte hearing, at which the church was not represented. The Church of Scientology had previously been denied the right to register under the 1997 law, which requires groups with more than 15 years in the country to sign up as religious organizations.
The Scientologists are not the only victims of the law. The federal list of Extremist Materials to which their publications were added includes nearly 600 publications.
Muslim literature has been denounced as "extremist" because it "propagandizes the idea of the superiority of Islam — and therefore Muslims — over other religions and the people who adhere to them." Last fall the Russian Supreme Court upheld a government ban on publications of the Jehovah's Witnesses as extremist. The local organization was ordered liquidated and its property was seized.
Unfortunately, these are merely the tip of an iceberg of growing repression. The American religious leaders explained to President Obama:
In 2007, the first bans on religious literature were implemented, and the Federal List of Extremist Materials was initiated. Then, in 2008-2009, the Justice Ministry reconstituted its Expert Religious Studies Council and gave it wide-ranging powers to investigate the activity, doctrines, literature and worship of religious organizations and then recommend measures. The appointment of renowned "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars to the Council provoked an unprecedented outcry from many religious representatives and human rights defenders.
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.