Religious Freedom Issues
Russian Law Classifies 'Traditional' Faiths
KESTON/, 2/5/2002
Moscow - The Russian government today unveiled a new law regarding the treatment of "traditional religious organizations."
The Keston News Service reported that Aleksandr Chuyev, the vice-chairman of a special committee charged with the creation of new legislation governing religious groups, would introduce the bill to the Duma, or parliament, today.

The proposed law would define a "traditional religious organization" that had been active for 50 years or more on Russian territory-- or in a particular geographic location within Russia. Such groups would be recognized as "an inalienable part of the historical, spiritual, and cultural heritage" of the Russian people.

Religious groups which achieved such designation would be given opportunities to set up schools, administer charitable programs, and broadcast programs on the electronic media-- all with possible subsidies from the government-- Keston reported. However, in order to attain that status they would be required to register with government agencies.

Aleksandr Chuyev, the chief architect of the new bill, told Keston that the legislation 'would not limit freedom of conscience for anyone." But Father Igor Kovalevsky, the chancellor of the Moscow archdiocese, argued that any form of preferential treatment would be "the crudest violation of the constitution." He told Keston that "all confessions should have the same rights."

The treatment of Catholic organizations under the new law could cause an unusual legal arrangement. The proposed bill recognizes representatives of "foreign traditional religious organizations," if those groups are acknowledged by the country in which their headquarters is located. Since the Russian Federation does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the implementation of that provision of the new law could require Moscow to seek certification from the Italian government that the Catholic Church is a "traditional religious organization."

The Russian government routinely acknowledges four traditional religions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The government has been slow to recognize Christian groups other than the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Patriarchate of Moscow has zealously guarded the unique status of the Orthodox Church.