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?
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was adapted by the author from an op-ed previously published at The Blaze and is reprinted here with his permission.
Russia recently imposed new restrictions on religious groups outside the Russian Orthodox Church. Although some allege that this is a return to a Stalinist state, these actions are best understood in the immediate context of September’s parliamentary elections as well as in the longer term as Russia’s continuing suspicion of “foreign” influences.
First, is important to understand what religious freedom is. Individual religious liberty is not just being alone with one's god in a closet because religion is a collective activity. It includes meeting with other believers, discussing one's faith with others, talking about faith with one’s children, reading and publishing religious materials, and the like. Many fundamental rights are involved with religious liberty that directly stem from this “first freedom” including the right to assemble, freedom of speech, property rights, and the right to educate one's children in the faith. Russia has long restricted these things and the updated 2016 rules make it increasingly difficult for evangelicals, in particular, to practice their faith openly in Russia and associate themselves with global evangelical networks.
Are Russia’s restrictions new? No. The July 2016 law extends a 1997 law, signed by Boris Yeltsin, restricting the activities of religious individuals and groups. The law was billed as an anti-terrorist measure, and it is true that over the years the Russian government has shut down the activities of a few radical mosques around the country. But it is clear that these restrictions are not really focused on violent Islamists or other terrorist actors. A simple look at the restrictions makes this clear: restrictions on public meetings, inviting foreign pastors or missionaries to visit, restrictions on publishing and broadcast, zoning and permit requirements, and other legal intrusions.
These restrictions should also be understood in light of the 2012 “foreign agent” law in Russia. The purpose of that law, ostensibly, was to restrict the activities of foreign agents and foreign money coming in to Russia to alter the political landscape. The actual target, however, was NGOs and human rights organizations. Indeed, it is estimated that one third of NGOs operating in Moscow have shut down since the 2012 law.
Similarly, the religious restriction laws have been used to target Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Scientology, and more traditional evangelical Christian groups. It is hard to understand how Jehovah's Witnesses or Scientologists can be seen as a threat to Russian national security in ways analogous to Islamic State or al Qaeda affiliates.
The penalties for violating the religious restrictions are draconian. The law carries a fine of up to nearly $800 for individuals and over $15,000 for organizations who violate the rules. Foreign visitors, such as missionaries, can be immediately deported. These rules, like the 2012 foreign agents law, allow for intrusive inspection and audits by government officials.
A second point that seems to have been largely missed by outsiders is the relationship of a narrowing of civil rights and liberties in Russia and the pending national parliamentary elections. Unlike past elections where there were obvious charges of voter fraud and intimidation, such has not been observed widely in Russia over the summer. Instead, there is a sophisticated narrative in government and “private” media outlets that Russian society and culture are under siege and that Russia is fortunate to have the bold, determined leadership of Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party to stand up against all forms of foreign influence and aggression.
Some in the West may find this laughable, but it is worthwhile to consider the claims of the narrative. The argument is that Russia is confronted by the West, by violent Islamism, by moral decadence in its youth and their liberal Western counterparts, and by hungry Asian powers in the East. Signs of this treacherous world abound, from NATO expansion to gay rights activism to violent Islamism to the undermining of the Russian Orthodox Church by unscrupulous religious sects. Putin’s poll numbers are remarkably high and this seems to be support from likely voters who do believe that Russia is acting appropriately in a dangerous world.
What can be done? Does the U.S. have leverage on these issues?
The U.S. already has a legal framework for dealing with these issues. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), signed by President Bill Clinton, set up government institutions in Washington to identify and recommend action on violations of religious liberty abroad. The Act set up an independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and a separate, important Office of International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State. At the State Department, the office is headed by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The current ambassador, Rabbi David Saperstein, is an intelligent, winsome, convincing advocate and the staff of both of these agencies are knowledgeable, dedicated, and worldly-wise. Each year, the State Department publishes a massive, comprehensive report on the state of global religious liberty that is widely recognized for its quality.
The 1998 Act gives the president, delegated to the Secretary of State, the authority to sanction governments that violate religious liberty. The U.S. has targeted extreme violators of religious freedom in the past, such as Vietnam, Iran, and North Korea. So what has been with regards to Russia this year on this issue?
USCIRF issued a robust statement about the law this summer. “These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom,” said USCIRF Chair Thomas J. Reese, S.J. “They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people. Neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.” USCIRF has also ranked Russia as a Tier 2 religious freedom violator, alongside countries like Laos and Afghanistan.
Russia argues that Americans do not want unregulated foreign cash pouring into their society influencing law, politics, and culture. Russia also argues that the fundamental purpose of these laws is to target terrorists. Moscow’s arguments are clever but they are smokescreens for attacks on individual liberty, religious freedom, diversity, and evangelical Christianity. It is not clear that in the current state of Russo-American affairs that the U.S. has leverage at this point on these issues. One could hope, however, that a new U.S. president could deal with the Russians in a strategic way that recognized both commonalities of interests (e.g. containing the war in Syria, fighting violent Islamism, an eye on China) and yet could also persuade Russia that religious diversity is not a threat but rather a sign of societal health. This really is the key, as many thinkers such as Brian Grim, Timothy Shah, Tom Farr, and others have argued: Russia must see religious freedom as in its long-term interests. Until it does, it will continue to use nationalistic, exclusionary language to promote its ends.
Eric Patterson is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Politics in a Religious World: Toward a Religiously Literate U.S. Foreign Policy.
**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.**