New Curbs On Religious Freedom Cast Soviet Shadow Over Russia

On July 7, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a package of amendments with the declared purpose of countering terrorism and ensuring public safety. These amendments, known as the Yarovaya law, which went into effect July 20, present a number of severe restrictions to religious freedom, essentially banning preaching, praying, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials outside of officially-designated locations.
 
The realities of religiously motivated terrorism present a security challenge that all governments must address. Do these laws represent a legitimate response to security concerns or serve as an excuse to introduce new restrictions on the free exercise of religious groups? 
Go here see other pieces in this series: Russia's Yarovaya Laws

This July, Vladimir Putin introduced the severest restrictions on religious freedom in Russia since the Soviet era.

The regulations on ‘missionary activity’ form part of a sprawling package of legislation nicknamed the Yarovaya law after its main sponsor. Its express aim is “to counter terrorism and ensure public safety.”  

The “missionary” amendments were inserted midway through the legislation’s lightning passage through Russia’s parliament. They stipulate that members of a faith community may share their religious beliefs with non-members only with the written authorization of that community’s leaders. The leaders themselves, and all clerics, are exempt. Church buildings, pilgrimage sites and other places specially designated for religious activity are also exempt,  mass media and the Internet are not.

These arrangements favor the hierarchies of faiths well established in Russia. Orthodox priests and state-approved imams will continue to preach unhindered in official churches and mosques, on television, and online. Others face regulation.

The new legislation further bans “missionary activity” in private homes, except for “worship services, religious rites and ceremonies.” While undefined, these terms would appear to exclude discussion about religion, such as Bible study. (Priests offering house blessings or unction for the housebound, on the other hand, would be covered.)

Post-Soviet Russia permits changing the designation of some residential premises – such as ground-floor apartments – to office space. But the Yarovaya law now bans their conversion into places of worship. Thousands of faith communities across the country utilize urban apartments or village cabins that are technically residences as their primary worship space, as they do not have the numbers, resources, or political clout to maintain approved houses of worship.

What will this mean for them? The Yarovaya legislation only came into force on July 20th, so it is still early to gauge. Russians have a saying: ‘the severity of our laws is mitigated by their lack of implementation.’ Prosecutors have not enforced similarly oppressive 2013 measures outlawing “offence to religious feelings”.

But the record to date does not reassure. In the first known attempt at prosecution, a young man named Vadim Sibiryev was arrested on July 28th in Cherkessk, a town in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, for handing out Krishna literature on the street. He successfully argued that he had acted alone, not on behalf of a faith community, and the case was dropped.

For others, this argument is harder to make. Ebenezer Tuah, a Protestant leader from Ghana, was fined the equivalent of $770 on August 1st after police found him performing baptisms in a rented swimming pool in Tver, 100 miles northwest of Moscow. On August 14th police in Oryol, some 200 miles south of Moscow, interrupted Sunday worship at the house of Donald Ossewaarde, a Baptist from Michigan. He was fined the equivalent of $600.

On August 31st Pentecostal pastor Aleksandr Yakimov was fined the equivalent of $75 for including religious content in his address to a village festival in Mari El, a region on the River Volga.

There is appetite for much more.

The new controls are the long-awaited fruit of fierce lobbying by opponents of religious freedom in Russia. From the mid-1990s, they secured a raft of regional laws regulating “missionary activity”. The term then surfaced in a bill mooted by the Justice Ministry in 2006. The Yarovaya law’s definition of “missionary activity” follows a 2009 revision of that text almost word for word.

Back in 2009, the draconian Justice Ministry bill was shouted down. Baptist leader Yuri Sipko imagined what would happen if he started extolling his church when chatting to a stranger. “Citizen! Your documents! What organization are you from? Where is your permission for missionary activity? Come along with me!” Even popular Russian Orthodox cleric Andrei Kurayev was incensed: “If a babushka starts up a conversation with fellow train passengers about her ailments and St. Matrona, is she supposed to be fined?” But the proposals also appeared fanciful: One Moscow-based religious freedom lawyer assured me he would move to the countryside and take up beekeeping if they ever became law.

What a difference a few years make. In July 2015 Putin signed into law another key proposal from the 2009 Justice Ministry text: a requirement for all faith communities to at least notify the state authorities of their existence, including providing the names and addresses of their members. This has so far been tricky to enforce: It is hard to prosecute a faith community for not making you aware of its existence unless you are aware of its existence. Unlawful public “missionary activity” now reveals it: Failure to notify the state about his worship group was one of the objections leveled against Ossewaarde.

Away from exempt locations such as church buildings, a key criterion for defining religious activity as “missionary activity” appears to be whether anyone who is a non-participant in the relevant faith community comes into contact with what is taking place. A literal interpretation of the Yarovaya law in concert with the July 2015 legislation suggests that the only legal path forward for faith communities without approved worship premises is to inform the state authorities of their existence and oblige anyone present at their gatherings to certify themselves as “participants.” Rather than comply, many will sooner go underground – just as in Soviet times.

These new restrictions on “missionary activity” are not an aberration or oversight. Putin’s Russia already has a well-established precedent of curtailing religious freedom under the guise of ensuring public safety. Under a 2002 law against extremism, scores of texts popularized by Jehovah’s Witnesses and non-violent Muslims have been banned as “extremist,” typically merely for extolling their faith over others. Those disseminating the texts have been fined or jailed, another uncanny throwback to the Soviet era. In 2010, one of the first Jehovah’s Witnesses fined for distributing “extremist” literature was pensioner Aleksei Fedorin. As a younger man, he spent five years in a prison camp for his “anti-Soviet” religious beliefs.

Even senior calls for the 2002 extremism law to be softened have been stubbornly ignored. Efforts to enforce the new regulations on “missionary activity” will – like that law – no doubt be patchy, driven by local strength of feeling against faiths perceived as foreign and/or undesirable. We can hope that law enforcement agents will be reluctant to implement them. But for an increasingly rapacious state, the incentive – maximum fines equivalent to $15,000 – is high.


Geraldine Fagan monitored religious freedom across Russia from 1999-2013 while based in Moscow, most recently for Forum 18 News Service. She is the author of Believing in Russia – Religious Policy after Communism (Routledge, 2013).


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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