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Analysis: Russia's 'Nontraditional' Faiths Could Be Left Out In The Cold

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Officials from the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe (PACE) reminded Russia last month of its obligation as a member of the council to guarantee its citizens the freedom to practice their religion of choice. Speaking at a press conference in Moscow, David Atkinson, PACE rapporteur for Russia, said on 5 November that "it was unpleasant for us to learn that several religious activists are being subjected to persecution in various parts of the country. In addition, the Jehovah's Witnesses remain outlawed in the city of Moscow." But such admonitions may be falling on deaf ears. Reports have suggested that national and regional legislators are attempting to create new legal obstacles for practitioners of so-called nontraditional religions, although whether such legislation will be enacted or enforced remains in question.

The State Duma's Committee for Public Associations and Religious Organizations is reportedly preparing amendments to the federal law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations under which religious groups would no longer be able to use public sports or cultural facilities for their religious services. Interfax on 14 October quoted an unidentified member of the committee's Expert Council as saying that the proposed amendments would "undoubtedly affect the activities of Russia's nontraditional denominations, which occasionally hold their church services in stadiums, cinemas, and sport complexes." The amendments are slated for consideration by the State Duma this session.

If such amendments are adopted, they could have a chilling effect on the activities of minority religions, many of which have experienced difficulties constructing their own churches or facilities. In Saratov, city officials recently blocked the ongoing construction of a Mormon church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased the building and has been reconstructing it since 2001, but local Muslim and Russian Orthodox leaders object to the building because they believe it is located too close to a Muslim mosque and an Orthodox chapel.

In Moscow, the Hare Krishnas have been trying for months to obtain preliminary approval for a temple design, but the reaction of city authorities has been relentlessly negative. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II went so far this year as to lambaste the Hare Krishnas in his Easter message for their "unfortunate proselytizing" and plans to build a "colossal temple" in Moscow. Moscow's chief architect, Vladimir Kusmin, said in April that the size of the temple should correspond proportionally to the number of Hare Krishnas in Russia compared with followers of other faiths. In November, a Moscow-based leader of the Hare Krishnas, Vadim Tuneev, published an open letter saying that for his group, each passing day reduces the hope that their temple will ever be built, Interfax reported on 3 November. According to Tuneev, a regulatory commission has returned the designs for the temple for additional work three times, and the building's size and height have been significantly reduced. The Hare Krishnas first announced plans to build the temple in the fall of 2003.
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II went so far this year as to lambaste the Hare Krishnas in his Easter message for their "unfortunate proselytizing."

While some religious groups find themselves out in the cold as far as facilities go, others are facing scrutiny for alleged proselytizing. The parliament of North Ossetia on 3 November adopted a law on the activities of missionaries in the republic. The law stipulates that "each missionary planning to engage in their activities on the territory of our republic should have all of the necessary documents and permissions, confirming their responsibilities and competence." The law also specifies places where it is possible to conduct missionary work. Republican Education Minister Alina Levitskaya explained in early November that legislators developed the law in response to the influx of representatives of various "sects" -- including the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, and the Jehovah's Witnesses -- following the September hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia. Levitskaya said that law enforcement officials received complaints about proselytizers, particularly Scientologists, within a few days of the tragedy.

North Ossetia's law is only one example of many similar laws against missionaries passed by Russian regions this year. In June, Kursk Oblast adopted a law on missionaries in response to what oblast Governor Aleksandr Mikhailov called the need for a "unified national religious-freedom policy in the face of an increase in the number of religious organizations, believers, and the sphere of activity in the regions," according to Forum 18. According to the news service, the inspiration for many of the regional laws has been a law adopted by Belgorod Oblast in March 2001 that requires missionaries to submit documentation confirming their affiliation to a locally registered religious organization, as well as an invitation, an itinerary of their stay, and proof of local registration. Many of the laws on the books, though, have remained unenforced, according to Forum 18, while other regions without legal restrictions have cracked down more harshly on missionary activity. Primorskii Krai recently expelled six Catholic priests and nuns, telling them not to return.

Geraldine Fagan, Moscow correspondent for Forum 18, told RFE/RL that while proposals to limit religious services at sports and cultural facilities do exist, they are still only at the Duma committee discussion stage. "They have not been adopted as draft amendments by the same committee, let alone reached the stage of a first reading by parliament," she said. "I would stress that there are or have been numerous similar documents under consideration by the Duma committee, such as various drafts on 'traditional religions,' and they normally don't get anywhere, even if proposed by committee members."

Even if the amendments are approved and come into effect, it is difficult to predict how they would be implemented. Speaking at a forum at RFE/RL in October, Lawrence Uzzell, president of International Religious Freedom Watch, noted that the controversial 1997 law on freedom of conscience and religion "has not been enforced as harshly in practice as you would expect it to be if you just saw the written text." Some groups, such as Roman Catholics, faced a lot of pressure, but that eased in 2002 following a detente with the Vatican. Whether the law is enforced is "determined not by any relevant change in the law but by shifting decisions of the Kremlin about what is in their interest at the moment," Uzzell said. "The law itself hangs as a sword of Damocles over every religious minority in Russia and is one of the things that helps keep them in line -- that stops them from speaking out about atrocities in Chechnya."

So for the time being, members of Russia's nontraditional faiths can look forward to more of the same. Their day-to-day operations will depend on the caprice of regional-level bureaucrats. As Uzzell noted, the law on religion has been "a great source of corruption for local bureaucrats [who can] collect bribes from both domestic and religious organizations [seeking] registration."