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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Religious Flowering

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A newly published study shows that there has been a remarkable growth in the number and diversity of religious organizations in Russia over the last decade.

In the current issue of the "Religions" supplement to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," researcher Mikhail Tulsky reports that the number of congregations in Russia has gone from 5,000 in 1990 to more than 20,000 now and that many denominations which had never been present in that country before now have a foothold.

But perhaps the most intriguing finding of Tulsky's study is that the government's requirement that Russian religious groups re-register with the state has not been as discriminatory as many critics have claimed.

According to Tulsky, who had access to Justice Ministry files both for the country as a whole and for the city of Moscow in particular, there are now 10,913 Russian Orthodox congregations registered in Russia. In addition, there are 3,048 Muslim groups, 197 Jewish organizations, and 193 Buddhist temples registered with the state, all significantly more than ten years ago.

Tulsky says there has been an explosion in the number of Protestant Christian groups. There are now 2,910 Evangelical groups, 330 Jehovah's Witnesses meetings, 213 Presbyterian congregations, and 476 other protestant communities.

And there are now 106 Hare Krishna groups registered, along with 20 Bahai communities, 17 Unification Church congregations, and 41 pagan groups. The last, Tulsky says, has shown particularly rapid growth, up by almost six times over the last five years alone.

In short, Tulsky says, Russia has not been this religiously diverse before in its officially registered faiths.

But most attention up to now has been directed precisely at those religious groups which either have not sought registration or have been denied it. According to Russian Justice Ministry files, some 3,000 congregations which existed in the past have not sought the required re-registration.

Most of these appear simply to have ceased to exist as corporate bodies, Tulsky reports. But another 1,500 congregations have applied for but failed to get registration. It is these groups that have attracted the most attention from human rights activists.

Many of the religious groups denied registration have said that they are the victims of official discrimination, a claim that seems to be true in a number of cases. But some groups appear to have been victimized either by their own failure to meet registration requirements or by simple bureaucratic incompetence.

According to figures about Moscow cited by Tulsky, 90 percent of the groups "denied" re-registration in fact failed to present the necessary documentation.

Perhaps the outstanding example of the last phenomenon was a decision, later reversed by Russian courts, not to register the Salvation Army as a religious group in Moscow because of what some officials said were its "obvious militarist links."

Moreover, Tulsky notes, the rate of registrations was roughly similar across most of the major faiths -- 65 to 75 percent of Orthodox groups, 78 percent of Protestant Christians, 80 percent of Jewish groups, and 65 percent of Buddhist temples -- a pattern which challenges claims of systematic discrimination in the registration process overall.

But Tulsky's findings and arguments do not address what is perhaps the most fundamental issues concerning registration: Why should groups have to register with the state at all. And why should those which do not register be denied the right to function legally.

In most countries, governments require pro forma registration of religious and other nongovernmental groups for tax purposes if nothing else. But they generally do not preclude religious groups from functioning if they do not register with the state.

Russian legislation, unlike that in most other countries, denies religious congregations which do not register the right to open bank accounts, rent property, and even prepare literature for their members and those they seek to convert.

Nonetheless, the registration process even if it discriminates against religion as such has not been as discriminatory to specific groups as many have assumed. And Tulsky's study makes yet another contribution by highlighting just how diverse Russia is now in religious terms.

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