Religious Freedom
2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom: Russia (Part 1)
Part 1 of the U.S. State Departement report on the situation of freedom of religion in Russia.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, although the Constitution also provides for the equality of all religions before the law and the separation of church and state, in practice the Government does not always respect the provision for equality of religions, and some local authorities imposed restrictions on some religious minority groups. The commitment of the new Government under President Vladimir Putin to adhere to international standards of religious freedom remained unclear by mid-2000.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
The 1997 law on religion, which replaced a more liberal 1990 law, continues to be the focus of serious concern about the state of religious freedom in the country. One of the law's most controversial provisions is a requirement that a church must prove that it has existed for at least 15 years in the country before it is allowed to be registered as a full-fledged religious organization. (Registration as a religious organization is necessary in order for a religious community to rent or buy a facility, proselytize, publish literature, provide religious training, or conduct other activities.) In a November 1999 ruling, the Constitutional Court upheld the 15-year requirement but also permitted the registration of organizations that already were registered when the 1997 law was passed or that were willing to become a local branch of a larger registered denomination. The provision still severely restricts the activities of small, new, independent congregations. The 1997 law also requires that all religious organizations be registered by December 31, 2000. Due to several factors, the registration process has been slow, and a large number of religious organizations may remain unregistered by the end of 2000 and therefore may be subject to "liquidation" (that is terminated as a legal entity) by local authorities at the end of 2000. The lack of clarity in the 1997 law, combined with contradictions between federal and local law and varying interpretations of the law, furnish regional officials with pretexts to restrict the activities of religious minorities. Discriminatory practices at the local level also are attributable to the increased decentralization of power over the past several years and the relatively greater susceptibility of local governments to lobbying by majority religions, as well as to government inaction and discriminatory attitudes that are widely held in society. For example, articles heavily biased against religions considered "nontraditional" appear regularly in both the local and national press. There were reports of harassment of members of religious minority groups. Several religious communities were forced to defend themselves in court from charges by local authorities that they were engaging in harmful activities; however, in many cases local courts demonstrated their independence by dismissing frivolous cases or rulings in favor of the religious organizations. As of mid-2000, it remained unclear whether any religious organization had ceased operations as a result of the 1997 religion law.
The U.S. Government has been active in encouraging respect for religious freedom. The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Consulates General actively investigated reports of violations of religious freedom, including anti-Semitic incidents. U.S. officials discuss these issues with a broad range of government officials, representatives of religious groups, and human rights activists on a daily basis.
Section I. Government Policies on Religious Freedom
Legal/Policy Framework
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, although the Constitution also provides for the equality of all religions before the law and the separation of church and state, in practice the Government does not always respect the provision for equality of religions, and in some instances local authorities imposed restrictions on some groups.
In December 1990, the Soviet Government adopted a law on religious freedom designed to make all religions equal before the law. (After the breakup of the Soviet Union, this law became part of the Russian Federation's legal code.) The 1990 law forbade government interference in religion and established simple registration procedures for religious groups. Registration of religious groups was not required; however, by registering groups obtained a number of advantages, for example, the ability to establish official places of worship and benefit from tax exemptions.
During the early and mid-1990's, many sectors of society, particularly nationalists and many members of the Russian Orthodox Church, were disturbed by a sharp increase in the activities of well-financed foreign missionaries. Many advocated limiting the activities of what they termed "nontraditional" religious groups and what sometimes were called "dangerous" or "totalitarian" sects. In October 1997, the Duma enacted a new, restrictive, and potentially discriminatory law on religion, which raised questions about the Government's commitment to international agreements honoring freedom of religion. This law replaced the progressive 1990 religion law that had helped facilitate a revival of religious activity. Passage of the law and its signature by then-President Boris Yeltsin prompted concern in the international community because, for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Government had adopted legislation that could abridge fundamental human rights. Although President Yeltsin had rejected earlier drafts of the law, the Presidential Administration considered the last version the least objectionable and concluded that, in view of the political situation, any further veto would have been overridden.
In its preamble (which government officials insist has no legal force), the 1997 religion law recognizes the "special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia's spirituality and culture." It accords "respect" to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and certain other religions as an inseparable part of the country's historical heritage.
The 1997 religion law ostensibly targeted so-called "totalitarian sects" or dangerous religious cults. However, the intent of some of the law's sponsors appears to have been to discriminate against members of foreign and less well-established religions by making it difficult for them to manifest their beliefs through organized religious institutions. The critics of the law believe that the basic assumption behind the law is that religious groups must prove their innocence and their legitimacy before gaining the advantages of state recognition. Government officials, including then-President Boris Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, pledged that the law on religion would not result in any erosion of religious freedom in the country. As of mid-2000, the Presidential Administration under President Putin has yet to comment on the law. Presidential Administration officials have established consultative mechanisms to facilitate government interaction with religious communities and to monitor application of the law on religion. The Government continues to attempt to mitigate some of the law's most negative aspects and has shown some willingness to intervene with local authorities in defense of religious rights.
Government officials, some nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), and religious freedom experts believe that President Vladimir Putin's emphasis on centralization of power and strengthened rule of law could lead to improvements in the area of religious freedom. Putin has promised stricter and more consistent application of all laws. However, some other NGO's, religion-law experts, and representatives of religious groups point out that stricter implementation of the 1997 religion law could create opposite results. On one hand, stricter implementation of the 1997 federal law in the regions could compel some reluctant local authorities to stop blocking local registration of "nontraditional" religions. On the other hand, stricter implementation also could require local authorities to "liquidate" (that is terminate as a legal entity) by court order organizations that have failed to register by December 31, 2000. An amendment to extend the registration deadline in the 1997 law, signed on March 27, 2000 by President Putin, also changed a key phrase: organizations still unregistered after the deadline "are subject to liquidation" (rather than the previous text's "may be liquidated"). Some observers believe that the law now appears to require liquidation of unregistered organizations; however, other religion law experts consider the more precise phrasing, which appears to require the liquidation of all organizations that are unregistered by the deadline, less likely to be enforced, since the authorities would be unwilling to liquidate the large number of Russian Orthodox groups that they expect to remain unregistered at that time.
Given the inadequacy of regulatory guidance from the federal authorities on how to apply the 1997 law correctly, the shortage of knowledgeable local officials registering by the end of 2000 is expected to be a significant obstacle for many religious groups. Human rights observers remain deeply concerned that President Putin has not expressed a firm commitment to freedom of religion publicly and point to the continued public association of the Presidential Administration with the Russian Orthodox Church as evidence of favoritism.
In May 2000, President Putin took a significant step toward increasing federal control in the regions by signing a decree dividing the country into seven federal districts and naming to each of the seven regions a presidential representative. The Presidential Administration also reportedly is conducting a review of regional legislation that conflicts with federal law and the Constitution, including regional religion laws. According to the Presidential Administration, 30 of 89 regions have laws and decrees on religion that violate the Constitution by restricting the activities of religious groups; presumably they would have to be changed. However, as of June 30, 2000 it remained unclear whether the Federal Government had the necessary legal mechanisms and political will to bring all religion legislation into compliance with federal law.
The office of the Russian Federation Human Rights Plenipotentiary (a government entity created by the Parliament in 1997 and tasked with promoting human rights) has announced that it is setting up a department dedicated to religious freedom issues. Oleg Mironov of the office of Plenipotentiary publicly criticized the 1997 religion law in a memo to the Duma in April 1999 and recommended changes to bring it into accordance with the Constitution and international norms for religious freedom.
The 1997 law on religion is very complex, with many ambiguous and contradictory provisions. On its face, the law creates various categories of religious communities with differing levels of legal status and privileges. The law distinguishes between religious "groups" and "organizations," two mutually exclusive registration categories, and creates two categories of organizations: "regional" and "centralized." A religious "group" is a congregation of worshipers that does not have the legal status of a juridical person, meaning that it may not open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, or conduct worship services in prisons and state-owned hospitals. Groups are permitted to rent public spaces and hold services. Moreover, the law does not purport to abridge the rights of individual members of groups. For example, a member of a religious group could buy property for the group's use, invite personal guests to engage in religious instruction, and import religious material. However, in this case, the group would not enjoy tax benefits and other rights extended to religious organizations, such as proselytizing.
In contrast to religious groups, religious organizations, both local and centralized, are considered juridical persons, enjoy tax exemptions, and are permitted to proselytize, establish religious schools, host foreign religious workers, and publish literature. The law provides that congregations that had existed for 15 years when the new law was enacted were eligible for registration as an organization. A "centralized religious organization" may be founded by a confession that has three functioning "local organizations" (each of which must have at least 10 members who are Russian citizens) in different regions. A centralized organization apparently has the right to establish affiliated local organizations without adhering to the 15-year rule. In implementing this provision, the Government has extended this definition to include a "registered centralized managing center."
The provisions that require that religious groups exist for 15 years before they may qualify for "organization status" and that relegate other religious entities to the status of "groups" are among the most controversial elements of the 1997 law. Critics of the law claimed that these articles violated the Constitution's provision of equality before the law of all confessions.
A constitutional challenge to the law on religion was filed with the Constitutional Court in May 1998 by the NGO the Institute for Religion and Law. It was based on the cases of a Khakasiya Pentecostal church and the Yaroslavl Jehovah's Witnesses. The petitioners claimed that the provision of the 1997 religion law requiring religious organizations to prove 15 years of existence in Russia in order to be registered is unconstitutional. In a November 23, 1999 hearing, the Constitutional Court upheld the 15-year provision but also ruled that religious organizations that were registered before the passage of the 1997 law were not required to prove 15 years' existence in the country in order to be registered. The Constitutional Court also upheld the right of the Government to place certain limits on the activity of religious groups in the interests of national security. The Institute and other experts described the decision as a sound and legally correct compromise.
However, under this ruling independent churches with less than 15 years in the country still are not able to register as religious organizations unless they affiliate themselves with existing centralized organizations. The Institute for Religion and Law and other NGO's point out that this is a significant restriction for small, independent religious communities. Some human rights activists also are concerned by language in the ruling that cites 1993 and 1996 decisions in the European Court of Human Rights regarding religious "sects," and upholds the right of the Government to place certain limits on the activity of religious groups in the interests of national security.
Despite the Federal Government's efforts to implement the religion law liberally and to provide assurances that religious freedom would be observed, restrictions continued at the local level. The vagueness of the law and regulations, the contradictions between federal and local law, and varying interpretations of the law provide regional officials with a pretext to restrict the activities of religious minorities. Discriminatory practices at the local level are attributable to the increased decentralization of power and the relatively greater susceptibility of local governments to lobbying by majority religions, as well as to national government inaction and prejudicial attitudes that are widely held in society. Concerns continue that a large number of religious organizations may remain unregistered by the end of 2000 and therefore may be even more vulnerable to attempts by local authorities to restrict their activities.
Since 1994 30 of the country's 89 regional governments have passed laws and decrees intended to restrict the activities of religious groups. At the time the 1997 religion law was under discussion, its proponents argued that it was necessary in order to deal with the many restrictive local laws. However, the federal Government has not challenged effectively the unconstitutionality of these restrictions, although the Presidential Administration sent warnings to 30 regions regarding the unconstitutionality of local laws. Critics contend that the Federal Government should be more active in preventing or reversing discriminatory actions taken at the local level by more actively disseminating information to the regions and, when necessary, reprimanding the officials at fault. Observers also have proposed that the federal authorities take action to ensure that regional and local legislation or other actions do not contradict constitutional provisions protecting religious freedom. As part of President Putin's initiative to centralize power, the Presidential Administration currently is conducting an overall review of regional legislation and has stated that religion laws also would be addressed by this initiative.
The Russian Orthodox Church was involved actively in drafting the 1997 law on religion. It has made special arrangements with government agencies to conduct religious education and to provide spiritual counseling to Russian military service members. These arrangements do not appear to be available to other religions. (In particular, Muslim religious leaders have complained that they are not permitted to minister to Muslim military service members.) The head of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, participates in most high-level official events and appears to have direct access to and influence with officials of the executive branch. The traditional view that Russian soil is an exclusively "Orthodox domain" leads to frequent criticism and intolerance of foreign religious groups that proselytize in the country. Many Orthodox Church officials condemn such "sheep stealing" when practiced by other Christian churches. Even well established foreign religious organizations have been characterized by some in the Orthodox leadership as "dangerous and destructive sects."
On June 4, 2000, news reports surfaced alleging that Chief Rabbi of Russia Adolf Shayevich was urged by Presidential Administration officials to step down in favor of a prominent Lubavitcher rabbi, Berl Lazar. Rabbi Shayevich later denied that the incident had occurred. On June 12, 2000, authorities arrested media magnate Vladimir Gusinskiy, the President of the Russian Jewish Congress President and a critic of the Government. On the same day, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia elected Rabbi Lazar Chief Rabbi of Russia, which created a schism in the Jewish community between supporters of Shayevich and supporters of Lazar. This sequence of events aroused serious concern among many observers that the Presidential Administration was attempting to meddle in intraconfessional affairs and prompted the Russian Jewish Congress to accuse the Administration publicly of a "divide and conquer" strategy against the Jewish community. In addition, on June 19, 2000, the Minister of Culture signed an agreement with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia giving it, along with other organizations, the right to negotiate on behalf of the Jewish community for restituted property.
Under the 1997 religion law, representative offices of foreign religious organizations are required to register with state authorities. They are barred from conducting liturgical services and other religious activity unless they have acquired the status of a group or organization. Although the law officially requires all foreign religious organizations to register, in practice foreign religious representatives' offices (those not registered under Russian law) have opened without registering or have been accredited to a registered Russian religious organization. However, those offices may not carry out religious activities and do not have the status of a religious organization.
Religious Demography
There are no reliable statistics that break down the country's population by denomination, but available information suggests that approximately half of all citizens consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians (although the vast majority of these persons are not regular churchgoers). An opinion poll of 1,500 respondents conducted by Public Opinion in April 1999 found that 55 percent of the population consider themselves Orthodox Christian, 9 percent follow another religion, and 31 percent claim to be atheists. Another poll of some 4,000 respondents by the Center of Sociological Studies at Moscow State University in the spring of 1999 found that 43 percent claimed to be Orthodox Christians, while 51 percent described themselves as "religious believers" (not necessarily Orthodox). A separate poll found that in Moscow only 20 percent of respondents who identify themselves as Orthodox are regular churchgoers, while in the regions only 7 percent attend church regularly. According to January 2000 Ministry of Justice statistics, there are now 17,427 religious organizations registered nationwide. This figure represents a more than three-fold increase over the approximately 5,500 organizations registered in 1990. Over half of registered organizations are Russian Orthodox, 18 percent are Muslim, and 20 percent are Christian organizations other than Russian Orthodox. Jewish and Buddhist registered religious organizations each account for slightly less than 1 percent of the total number of organizations. Jehovah's Witnesses account for 2 percent of the total registered religious organizations, and the group reports that it has 250,000 members in the country. Ministry of Justice figures also show that approximately 5,000 nontraditional organizations are registered nationwide, representing a broad range of denominations and religious practices. Nontraditional registered organizations include Jehovah's Witnesses, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Christian-Baptists, Roman Catholics, Hare Krishnas, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans, Baha'is, and offshoots of Russian Orthodox Christianity, as well as 227 organizations representing less well-known denominations. Other religions, including Buddhism and Shamanism, are practiced in specific localities where they are rooted in local traditions.
An agreement signed on May 23, 2000, between two large Russian state radio networks and an international Christian broadcaster, Trans World Radio, provides for airing evangelical Christian programs on 750 transmitters throughout Russia. The broadcasts began on June 1, 2000 on Radio Mayak and Radio Yunost.
Governmental Restrictions of Religious Freedom
The Constitutional Court's November 1999 ruling effectively legalized a number of religious organizations that were registered at the time the 1997 law was passed but could not prove 15 years of operation in the country. For example, in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses, the 15-year rule no longer prevents the registration of newly created local Jehovah's Witnesses religious organizations, nor the reregistration of organizations that were registered at the time of implementation of the 1997 law but which were less than 15 years old.
The likely degree of adherence to this ruling by regional authorities remains unclear. Most observers agree that many local authorities remain unaware of this ruling and are uncertain as to how the 1997 law should be applied. In May 2000, the Russian State Academy of Public Service, in cooperation with local and foreign NGO's, attempted to address this problem by conducting a seminar on religion, which was attended by Ministry of Justice officials from 80 regions.
Between February 12 and June 3, 1998, the Government issued three sets of regulations governing implementation of the new law. While providing procedural guidelines for registration, the regulations failed to clarify many key definitional points in the law.
The case of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) reflects this confusion. The Society was denied federal registration in April 1999 because the Jesuit order's status, which is independent of a local bishop, does not met requirements contained in the 1997 law's provisions. However, an April 13, 2000 Constitutional Court ruling authorized the Jesuits to be registered. This ruling, published in full on May 13, 2000 in Rossisskaya Gazeta, referred extensively to passages in the November 1999 Constitutional Court ruling (which effectively legalized registered organizations existing at the time of the passage of the 1997 law). The April 2000 ruling also specifically refuted points cited by the Ministry of Justice as reasons for refusal. By mid-2000 the Society of Jesus was still negotiating certain points of its charter with the Ministry of Justice.
In the case of at least one religion, a federal government agency has been responsible for significant restrictions on the activities of a church. In some areas, foreign Roman Catholic religious workers must return to their home countries every 3 months in order to renew their visas, unlike other foreign workers who may apply for multiple-entry visas or extend their stays.
In addition to ambiguities in the regulations, the considerable time, effort, and legal expense required by the registration process--which involves simultaneous registration at both the federal and local levels--represent major obstacles for a number of confessions. International and well-funded Russian religious organizations, in particular, began the reregistration process soon after publication of the regulations governing reregistration. Russian Pentecostal groups, which have a solid and growing network of churches throughout the country, sought guidance from the Ministry of Justice on reregistration as early as November 1997. One of the larger organizations, the Russian Unified Fellowship of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (which traces its origins back to the early 1900's) reregistered as a centralized religious organization by late March 1998. It since has incorporated many smaller, newer Pentecostal groups within its structure. However, a significant number of smaller congregations remain unaware of how (or in a few cases, may be reluctant) to comply with Russian registration and tax-inspection requirements.
According to a May 2000 report by the Keston Institute, registration of Muslim religious organizations also is proceeding slowly, with only a small percentage of local organizations registered. The delay is largely due to a struggle between the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in European Russia and Siberia, based in Ufa and led by Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, and the Moscow-based Russian Council of Muftis, led by Chief Mufti Ravil Gainutdin. The Central Spiritual Directorate informed the Keston Institute that approximately 20 percent of its 2,500 local organizations have been registered. Mufti Gainutdin's organization is registered but did not have an estimate of how many of its local organizations were registered. Chief Mufti Gainutdin's staff complained that local authorities in some cases were obstructing the registration of local organizations that wished to join Gainutdin's rather than Tadzhuddin's union, and that those who wished to leave Tadzhuddin's Spiritual Directorate were being accused of "Wahhabism." In the Russian context, "Wahhabism," the name of a strict branch of Sunni Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia, has become a pejorative term because of persistent allegations that "Wahhabi extremism" is to blame for terrorist attacks linked to Chechnya.
The delay in reregistration was due in part to the slow pace at which the Federal Ministry of Justice has disseminated the regulations and guidelines to local authorities and in part to understaffing both at the Ministry of Justice and at local levels. In many instances, the Ministry of Justice has asked for additional information and has demanded changes in the organizational structure and by-laws of some groups to ensure that they are in conformity with the law. Smaller minority confessions also sometimes feared the registration process, while others started the process late because of the time involved in agreeing internally on how to register their organizations in conformity with the law. Katya Smyslova of the Esther Legal Assistance Center, an NGO that provides information to religious groups, reports that a significant number of congregations are unaware of registration and tax inspection requirements.
Although reliable statistics are unavailable, observers estimated that as of mid-2000 just under half of the 400 of those requiring registration were registered at the federal level. Figures on the number of pending local registrations are also unavailable, but observers estimate that from one-half to two-thirds of the approximately 16,850 organizations required to reregister have not done so. The Institute for Religion and Law estimates that by the end of 2000, as many as one-third of local religious organizations will not be reregistered and therefore will be subject to liquidation.
In 1998 and early 1999, the Government attempted to address mounting concerns that a large number of religious organizations, particularly at the local level, might remain unregistered when the deadline passed at the end of 1999 and become left vulnerable to attempts by local authorities to restrict their activities. In June 1999, the Ministry of Justice recommended to regional directorates of justice that local religious organizations be reregistered. Religious groups reported in 1999 and early 2000 that local registrations began to be processed more easily after the recommendation. On August 2, 1999, a presidential decree was signed that clarified the relationship between the federal Ministry of Justice and the regional directorates of justice, stating that the directorates are "territorial organs of the Ministry." Observers and officials viewed this decree as a means to help bring insubordinate directorates more in compliance with federal policies, but, reflecting the decentralization of power of recent years, it appears to have had little effect.
Due to the Duma's failure to pass the amendment before the law's original deadline expired, between December 31, 1999 and March 26, 2000, approximately 8,400 religious organizations were left exposed to "liquidation" (closure by court order) on grounds of lack of registration. In an effort to forestall closures, which appears to have been largely successful, the Ministry of Justice in December 1999 sent a recommendation to regional authorities that they refrain from initiating legal proceedings to liquidate any organizations.
According to the Keston Institute and local NGO's, a small handful of religious organizations were threatened with liquidation due to lack of registration. In Voronezh, local administration officials filed petitions to liquidate 13 religious organizations on the basis of lack of registration in February, 2000, of which three cases were brought to court. The Institute of Religion and Law alerted the Ministry of Justice, which took prompt action to prevent the closures. Only one organization, a Pentecostal church, was liquidated. Local officials in Voronezh reportedly claimed that they were unaware of the federal Ministry's recommendation and subsequently withdrew petitions to liquidate the 10 remaining organizations. Although the incident alarmed religious freedom activists, in particular because none of the unregistered Russian Orthodox organizations were singled out, it appears that the proposed liquidations would not have harmed all of the denominations in question, because some of the organizations in question appeared to be either inactive or defunct. In Tatarstan the Church of Christ in Kazan was reportedly liquidated in April 2000 for allegedly holding a church conference without the permission of local authorities. The Kostroma regional department of justice was preparing lawsuits in June 2000 to dissolve the Kostroma Christian Center and Grace Church Evangelical Christians for allegedly violating the religion law by using "hypnosis" during their services. The department refused to register the two groups and authorized a committee of experts of the regional administration to evaluate the groups. The actions came after reports appeared on Kostroma state television accusing Pentecostal groups of using hypnosis during services.
While there were few efforts at liquidation, local authorities resisted the registration efforts of congregations belonging to a number of faiths. Jehovah's Witnesses report a total of 1,000 congregations in Russia, not all of which require registration. In 1998 and 1999, local authorities were refusing to register some local organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, pending federal level registration and the resolution of a Moscow municipal court case against Jehovah's Witnesses in that city under Article 14 of the 1997 religion law. Jehovah's Witnesses and religious rights activists welcomed the Ministry of Justice's April 30, 1999 decision to reregister Jehovah's Witnesses at the federal level, and Jehovah's Witnesses reported in May 2000 that since the new religion law went into force on October 1, 1997, it has registered a total of 337 local religious organizations in 65 regions of the country. However, as of April 2000, local authorities in 14 regions refused to register local Jehovah's Witnesses organizations, and no Jehovah's Witnesses organizations have been registered in St. Petersburg, although there are some 7,000 members of Jehovah's Witnesses there, according to the group's representatives. As of May 2000, the Moscow directorate of justice refused registration to Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow eight times, despite the precedent set by the Ministry of Justice's April 30 decision to reregister Jehovah's Witnesses at the federal level. Although there is no legal basis to do so, the directorate may be refusing registration pending resolution of the outstanding civil case against Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. The civil case against the Jehovah's Witnesses has been adjourned for over 1 year, following a March 1999 municipal ruling to refer the case to an expert panel for a recommendation. In the absence of reregistration, the group is subject to liquidation by court order after December 31, 2000. Moreover, according to representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses, as of May 31, 2000, there were liquidation warnings and actions to ban Jehovah's Witnesses at various levels of the judicial system in Novokuznetsk, Pechora (Komi), Prokhladnyi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Saratov, and Ushaly (Bashkortostan). An appellate court in Lipetsk ruled in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses after the group's registration was denied, and Jehovah's Witnesses intend to challenge decisions in some of the 14 other regions where congregations have been denied registration.
Jehovah's Witnesses report that their applications for local registration in some regions have been referred to local expert panels, despite a recommendation by the federal Ministry of Justice expert panel which, according to the Ministry of Justice, obviates the need for such review. Local expert studies of Jehovah's Witnesses have stalled registration efforts in Mari-El, Khabardino-Balkaria, Novgorod, and Orel. In Lipetsk a local expert study recommended the registration be refused, but in April 2000 the Lipetsk regional court ordered the Lipetsk justice department to register Jehovah's Witnesses under their standard nationwide charter.
Keston reported in March 2000 that Voronezh officials refused to register the Community of All Saints of the True Orthodox Church, an Orthodox Christian congregation that left the Moscow Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in the early 1990's. Parish priest Valeriy Kravets said that Orthodox communities outside the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate that met secretly in the apartments of members and hid successfully from the KGB during the Soviet era, now are finding it nearly impossible to register.
The Unification Church had 15 local organizations registered under the old law. By mid-2000, three organizations, including organizations in Ul'yanovsk and Ufa, had reregistered under the new law and the efforts of four others, in Yakutsk, Samara, Yekaterinburg, and Perm, were rejected. The efforts of the Central Unification Church to register as a centralized religious organization have been denied 3 times for various reasons.
The Salvation Army has registered local organizations in St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, and Volgograd, and currently is seeking federal registration as a centralized religious organization.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) has registered successfully 20 local religious organizations. After some initial trouble concerning registration of missionaries residing in the cities of Tolyatti and Novokuybyshevsk in the Samara region, by November 1999 the Church was able to agree with the Samara directorate of justice to establish registered local organizations in these cities in order to allow Mormon missionaries to reside there legally.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints since mid-1998 has been attempting to register its organizations in Kazan, Tatarstan as a local religious organization. After an earlier rejection, the court responded to a second appeal by transferring the case to a so-called "religious expertise assessment" in accordance with the Tatarstan law on religion. The assessment was supposed to have been completed by January 2000, but was not completed by mid-2000. Lack of registration has made it difficult for American missionaries, who would be sponsored by the local religious organization, to register their visas in Kazan. The local visa office refuses to register them as sponsored by an organization, but has told them that if individuals sponsor them, they can register. Despite these difficulties, the church has managed to rent space.
Registration problems persist in several regions. For example, the Moscow directorate of justice, reportedly on legally questionable grounds, repeatedly has refused registration of at least five religious organizations, besides Jehovah's Witnesses, including the Salvation Army and the Church of Scientology. The Salvation Army has a lawsuit pending against the Moscow department of justice but has had great difficulty getting a hearing because the municipal court repeatedly attempted to dodge jurisdiction over the case. The Salvation Army eventually was forced to obtain a ruling from a higher court, assigning jurisdiction back to the original municipal court.
The directorate of justice in Chelyabinsk continues to reject the local registration application of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, based on the alleged incompatibility of church activities with federal law. Even without registration, the church continues to hold regular services without incident, although its missionaries have suspended their door-to-door canvassing and other outreach activities. The Chelyabinsk directorate of justice also has rejected the registration applications of Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal churches in Chelyabinsk on similar grounds. As of May 2000, Jehovah's Witnesses reported that the Chelyabinsk directorate of justice had refused the group's application for registration seven times.
Measures have been taken to restrict the activities of a number of foreign missionaries and of congregations associated with them. There were reports that four U.S. missionaries are being refused visas to return to Russia. Dan Pollard (formerly of the Vanino Baptist Church in the Khabarovsk region) currently is banned from receiving a visa based on allegations that he violated customs regulations and evaded property taxes; however, it appears that local authorities violated their own regulations and refused to take necessary actions (such as providing a timely tax assessment), which would have enabled Pollard to comply with the law. David Binkley of the Church of Christ in Magadan also faced a criminal charge for failing to report $8,000 to customs officials, reportedly because he feared that the money would be stolen. He was acquitted in December 1999, primarily because the investigation and prosecution were marred by serious violations of due process by local authorities.
Local authorities then defied a court ruling to return the money, returning it briefly only to confiscate it a few minutes later, citing administrative customs regulations not applicable to the case. The third case, regarding Charles Landreth of the Church of Christ in Volgograd, appears to have been a response to articles in the local press accusing Landreth of being a spy. Those allegations may have led local authorities to recommend to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a visa be refused. A member of the local congregation, who has sought to resolve the matter since January 2000, reported in May that since local authorities no longer object to Landreth's return, it appears to be federal authorities who still are refusing to authorize issuance of a visa. A fourth missionary, Monty Race of Evangelical Free Church of America, who entered the country legally with a visa sponsored by a Moscow congregation, has been refused registration to reside in Naberezhniy Chelniy, Tartarstan. Race, who is married to a Russian citizen, also has been refused permission to register as a resident foreign spouse of a Russian citizen. The letter of refusal he received from the Ministry of Internal Affairs' local passport control office cited "national security" concerns.
Since March 1998, the Vanino Baptist Church and Pollard have fought a legal battle over registration of the church so that it could sponsor Pollard or a replacement to remain in the country. Khabarovsk authorities continue to deny reregistration of the Vanino Baptist Church on extremely questionable legal grounds. This not only prevents the Vanino Baptist Church from sponsoring a visa for any foreign religious worker but also is likely to leave it subject to liquidation at the end of 2000. The most recent reason for refusal offered by a local justice official is that the church building must be reclassified from a residential to a nonresidential property before the church may use it as a juridical address. However, this official did not cite a specific local statute, and federal law does not prohibit using a residence for religious services.
Although it may be a slow and costly process for religious groups, the judicial system has provided an appeal process for religious organizations threatened with loss of registered status or "liquidation" as a religious organization under Article 14 of the 1997 religion law, expired registration, or other laws. Some local churches that were initially denied local registration have been registered following successful lawsuits, as in the case of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission in Khakasiya in November 1998, when the federal Supreme Court overturned the verdict of the Khakasiya supreme court. A few congregations also reported that local authorities that initially refused to register them relented after the churches said that they would take the matter to court. In May 1999, a Magadan municipal court dismissed for lack of evidence a local procurator's civil case against the Word of Life Pentecostal Church in the Far Eastern city of Magadan under Article 14 of the 1997 religion law, in which the Church was accused of using "cult" practices to manipulate its members. The Magadan oblast court upheld this decision in June 1999. The Church reports that investigation of the church on criminal and tax-related charges continues. Church representatives report that negative stories about them continue to appear in the local state-controlled press. Despite these difficulties, the Word of Life Pentecostal church continues its normal activities.
According to the Keston News Service and to the Slavic Law and Justice Center's Vladimir Ryakhovskiy, a Kirov municipal court on February 1, 2000 dismissed the petition of the Kirov department of justice to close the Kirov Christian Church, a member organization of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christian Pentecostals. Local justice officials alleged that the Church used mass hypnosis to manipulate its followers and presented videotaped "evidence." Church lawyer Ryakhovskiy and a public prosecutor both successfully argued in court that the videotape, secretly filmed without the consent of the church, violated the congregation's right to privacy and could not be presented as legal evidence.
The department of justice in Cheboksary, Chuvashiya, petitioned for liquidation of the Cheboksary Church of Christ. Officials accused the Church of violating a health protection law by praying for the sick, violating civil law by conducting services in the pastor's apartment, failing to register by the original December 31, 1999 deadline of the 1997 religion law, and involving minors in church activity without their parents' consent. In a January 20, 2000 hearing, Anatoliy Pchelintsev of the Institute of Religion and Law and Vladimir Ryakhovskiy of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice argued that these charges had no legal merit, as prayer is not a medical activity and religious services in residential apartments are not forbidden by law. Furthermore the children simply had watched videos of "Superbook," a children's program about the Bible that already had been broadcast in Russia for 2 years by government-controlled television. Nevertheless, the judge postponed the case for another hearing.
At mid-June 2000, Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow were continuing their effort to avoid legal "liquidation." Acting on a complaint from the Committee to Save Youth from Totalitarian Cults (a group allegedly linked to the Russian Orthodox Church), a Moscow municipal procurator is seeking "liquidation" of the Moscow Jehovah's Witnesses organization under Article 14 of the 1997 religion law for its alleged antisocial, antifamily character. In March 1999, the trial was suspended pending review of the case by a panel of court-appointed religious experts. On June 28, 1999, the Moscow city court upheld the decision of the Golovinskiy municipal court to appoint an expert panel. As of mid-2000, the expert panel still was reviewing the case and was expected to render a split recommendation. Meanwhile Jehovah's Witnesses are preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court.
According to Jehovah's Witnesses, the St. Petersburg case in which Nataliya Ilyina, the mother of a young mentally disabled woman, had brought suit against Jehovah's Witnesses, alleging that they psychologically damaged her daughter, Yekaterina Ilyina, remained unresolved. Jehovah's Witnesses lawyer Artur Leontyev claimed that the anticult group Committee for Family and Personality and also self-described "sectomania" expert and Moscow psychiatrist Fedor Kondratyev are responsible for the case being brought. An earlier court had ruled that the Church had not harmed Ilyina, whose mental disability existed well before she began attending services. The plaintiff requested a second study by experts, which was underway at mid-2000.
There are continuing reports that some local and municipal governments prevented religious groups from using venues such as cinemas that are suitable for large gatherings. In many areas of the country, government-owned facilities are the only available venues. As a result, in some instances, denominations that do not own property effectively have been denied the opportunity to practice their faith in large groups. For example, in August 1999, Jehovah's Witnesses nearly were forced to cancel a convention for 15,000 members of the group at Moscow's Olympic Stadium, reportedly because stadium management was under pressure from the Moscow city administration. The weekend convention also was disrupted briefly by a telephone bomb threat, but no device was found (see Section II).
According to representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses, as of spring 2000 four cases were being litigated in which police officers interrupted meetings or public preaching by Jehovah's Witnesses, including an April 16, 2000 incident in which police in Chelyabinsk broke up a small religious meeting of the sign-language congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. The other cases occurred in St. Petersburg, Lensk, and Kislovodsk.
Some congregations also have reported difficulty obtaining necessary permits to renovate facilities and that local property owners were pressured by local officials to cancel leases signed with nontraditional religious churches. Although it remains a legally registered organization, Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow continue to have trouble leasing assembly space and obtaining the necessary permits to renovate their main building. Other religions, including Protestant groups and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, report that they continue to face discrimination in their ability to rent premises and conduct group activities. For example, in April in Kursk, the mayor refused Baptists and Muslims land and permission to build in the city.
Disputes concerning the return of religious property confiscated by the Soviet government are some of the most frequent complaints cited by religious groups. For the most part, synagogues, churches, and mosques have been returned to communities to be used for religious services. The Federal Government has met the requirements of the 1993 presidential decree on communal property restitution, and the decree continues to guide the ongoing process. According to statistics from the Ministry of State Property, over 2,000 federally owned properties have been returned to religious communities since 1989. However, jurisdiction in most cases is at the regional level, and there is no centralized source of information on these cases. A Ministry of Culture official responsible for restitution of religious historical monuments estimated in early 1999 that over 3,600 transfers of religious buildings had occurred at the regional level and that approximately 30 percent of property designated for return had been transferred back to its original owners at both the federal and regional levels. Nonetheless there continue to be reports of religious property that has not been returned. For example, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Ryazan still has not been returned to the local Catholic community. The Moscow Patriarchate has claimed and taken possession of properties owned by other branches of Orthodoxy and, in certain cases, property of other religions. In some property disputes, religious buildings have been "privatized," and there are long delays in finding new locations for the current occupants, as required by law. Local authorities often refuse to get involved in property disputes, which they contend are between private organizations. Even where state or municipal authorities still have undisputed control of properties, a number of religious communities continue to meet significant obstacles when they request the return of religious buildings. The Jewish community, which has met with some success on communal property restitution, faces the same obstacles as other religious communities and has concerns about the return of Torah scrolls, many of which are in state museum collections. The federal Government turned over 61 Torah scrolls to the Jewish community in May 2000.
Land problems are handled similarly when some religious communities seek to acquire land and necessary building permits for new religious structures. For example, since February 1999 local authorities in Omsk have not responded to the Mormons' request to lease land, although local church leaders are continuing their efforts to locate a site. Some Protestant faiths have suggested that the Russian Orthodox Church influences the Government regarding land allocated for churches of other faiths.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
© U.S. Department of State
Further Links:
Religious Freedom After Communism
National Center for Policy Analysis
Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs