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Muslims pray outside a Moscow mosque. Muslims pray outside the Moscow Cathedral Mosque during celebrations of Eid al-Adha, Moscow, Russia, Sept. 1, 2017 (AP photo by Pavel Golovkin).

Why Is Russia Becoming Less Tolerant of Religious Minorities?

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018

Editor's Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about religious minorities in various countries around the world.

In its 2017 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom called out Russia for creating an increasingly repressive environment for religious minorities. While the report did not put Russia on the U.S. watchdog’s list of most egregious violators, it did recommend for the first time that Russia be designated a “country of particular concern.” In an email interview, Eugene Clay, head of the religious studies faculty at Arizona State University and a scholar on religion in Russia, discusses Russian attitudes toward religion since the collapse of the Soviet Union and why the country is becoming less tolerant of religious minorities.

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WPR: How have attitudes toward religion in Russia evolved in the post-Soviet era, both in society and in government? How has this affected religious minorities in the country?

Eugene Clay: In 1990, under Mikhail Gorbachev, both the Soviet Union as a whole and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic within it passed new laws guaranteeing freedom of conscience—a sharp departure from earlier Soviet laws and practice that placed heavy burdens on religious communities and believers. The new laws ushered in a religious renaissance, in which religious believers of all kinds were able to worship freely. The Russian Orthodox Church, which had been the predominant church of the Russian Empire prior to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, especially benefited from these new freedoms, but so did Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics and new religious movements.

Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that had been in the Soviet Union in significant numbers after the 1944 annexation of Moldova, were able to emerge from the underground, establish a legal headquarters in St. Petersburg and openly engage in proselytizing. Likewise, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began sending missionaries to Russia in 1990 and succeeded in developing an extensive network of wards across the Russian Federation. Ole Nydahl, a Buddhist Lama in Denmark, also began traveling regularly to Russia in the 1990s, winning converts to the Diamond Way Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Claiming that he had received a series of revelations from the Virgin Mary, the Russian seer John Bereslavsky organized the “Mother-of-God Center,” which eventually became the Church of the Sovereign Mother of God. When the newly independent Russian Federation adopted a new constitution in 1993, it affirmed the equality of all religions before the law, as well as the secular nature of the state.

By 1997, however, the public attitude toward new religious movements and to foreign missionaries had become more critical. The growth of new religious movements and an influx of foreign missionaries convinced many Russians of the need for more restrictive laws. Between 1993 and 1997, dozens of Russia’s federal districts passed laws that favored “traditional” religions, as a series of scandals involving new religious movements active in the country were unfolding elsewhere. In November 1993, members of the Great White Brotherhood, a mystical New Age movement founded a few years earlier and active in Russia, assembled in Kiev to witness the end of the world. Mistakenly believing that they planned to commit mass suicide, Ukrainian police arrested hundreds of these believers, who clashed with police and damaged sacred icons in a prominent cathedral. In 1995, members of the Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo, which had proselytized in Russia and successfully registered three communities there by 1994, launched a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway, using sarin nerve gas they had obtained in Russia. In September 1997, Russia adopted the current Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations, which sought to favor established, traditional religions that had contributed to the histories and cultures of Russia’s many ethnic groups. As a result of the law, minority religious communities, as well as new ones, faced greater difficulties when they sought legal registration.

WPR: How has legislation in Russia been used to protect or persecute religious communities, particularly religious minorities?

Clay: In its preamble, the 1997 law singled out four religious traditions that were especially noteworthy for their contributions to the history and culture of the peoples of Russia: Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Each of these religions is connected to important ethnic communities. Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians have traditionally followed Orthodox Christianity; Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens and Ingush have been proponents of Islam; and Tuvans, Kalmyks and Buryats have embraced Buddhism. Significantly, Protestants and Catholics are excluded from this list, despite their long history in Russia. Although the law’s preamble had no legal force, many Russians began to identify these four religions as the “traditional religions of Russia.” Over time, new laws on education, counterterrorism, noncommercial organizations and extremism affirmed the special status of these four faiths. For example, in 2012, Russia introduced a new universal program of moral and spiritual education for elementary school children. Parents could choose to have their children study any one of the “four traditional religions of Russia,” or take a course on world religions or secular ethics. Because Catholicism is not considered a traditional religion of Russia, Catholic parents cannot request that their children study a module on Catholic civilization.

Laws against terrorism and extremism have increasingly been applied against certain religious minorities, as well. For example, beginning in 2009, Russian prosecutors launched a series of cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds that their literature, which affirmed the unique truth of their faith, promoted religious intolerance and extremism. As a result, the Ministry of Justice turned to the courts to strip several individual congregations of their legal registration. Most recently, Russia’s adoption of the “Yarovaya Laws” against terrorism and extremism in 2016 has significantly restricted religious freedom. Named for Irina Yarovaya, the conservative parliamentary deputy who introduced them, these laws have placed additional limits on missionary activity and laid the groundwork for the liquidation of the entire denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which prosecutors accused of being an extremist organization. In July 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their final appeal in Russia’s Supreme Court, and the government seized all the denomination’s assets.

WPR: Have religious minorities in Russia mobilized to push for greater rights and freedoms? If so, how successful have these efforts been?

Clay: Religious minorities have used the courts to defend their rights and freedoms. In 1999, a Pentecostal congregation and a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses won a major victory in the Constitutional Court, which affirmed their right to be registered under the 1997 law. Likewise, the Catholic Society of Jesus was able to win the right to legal registration from the Constitutional Court in 2000. To gain its juridical personhood under the 1997 law, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army had to turn to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in its favor in 2006. Three years later, the Ministry of Justice registered the branch.

The unprecedented ban in 2017 on the entire denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses is evidence of increasing religious intolerance in Russia. At the same time, Russia has over 30,000 legally registered religious organizations, many of which represent minority religions. Although the legal framework of the Russian spiritual marketplace clearly favors “traditional” religions, members of minority religions continue to struggle for their right to observe and spread their faiths.

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