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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Selective Enforcement

Washington, 26 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty-seven of the first 38 Russian religious congregations slated to be shut down for failing to reregister with the government are Muslim. Many Muslims are likely to view that pattern as representing a form of selective enforcement of the law. And to the extent they do, that alone could exacerbate relations between Russia's Christian and Muslim communities.

The Keston News Service reported on Wednesday that officials in the North Caucasus Kabardino-Balkar republic last week initiated the first legal suits in the Russian Federation to shut down religious communities that failed to reregister with the Justice Ministry by the end of December 2000 as required by Russia's law on religion.

The Britain-based religious rights watchdog service noted that even in that predominantly Islamic region, the Muslims appeared to be suffering the brunt of these legal actions. More than a third of its communities there will, if the courts rule in favor of the government, lose the right to publish, import or distribute literature, rent property, or sign any other kind of contract.

None of the 18 Russian Orthodox churches, seven Adventist churches, seven Baptist groups, five Presbyterian churches, or five other Christian groups failed to gain the necessary registration. Indeed, the only non-Muslim group now at risk is the local Jehovah's Witnesses community, which local officials said threaten civil peace by their practice of propagandizing door to door.

Part of the reason for this pattern, local Muslims admit, lies with themselves. Mufti Shafig Psikhachev, the head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in that republic, told Keston that many of the communities which had failed to register consisted exclusively of elderly men who did not understand the process. Other Muslim communities, he said, found it "difficult" to answer questions about their activities as required.

But for many Muslims in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the Russian Federation, such explanations are unlikely to be satisfactory, and they are likely to view this pattern of enforcement in which their communities are closed while non-Muslim groups are allowed to continue to operate as reflecting the unspoken intentions of the Russian government.

That is all the more likely for three reasons.

* First, the Russian Orthodox Church and especially its patriarch Aleksei II have done all they can to reaffirm a special relationship between Orthodoxy and the Russian state. President Vladimir Putin even more than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin appears to welcome this idea, meeting frequently with Aleksei and including him in an ever-growing number of public events.

* Second, Russian media commentary about Chechnya and Central Asia has been so overtly anti-Muslim that the Russian government itself has repeatedly had to point out that the problems in both places do not have their roots in Islam itself. But media attacks on Islam nonetheless continue, a development that has lead many Muslims to complain bitterly that these attacks actually reflect what the government itself wants.

* And third, many members of Muslim communities see this enforcement of the religion registration law as part of a broader campaign to restrict the rights of their community. Thus, some Muslim Tatars have already complained that the goverment's draft law on political parties requiring membership in a large percentage of the subjects of the federation is intended to deny them their electoral rights.

Such feelings are likely to be all the more significant because Muslims, or at least traditionally Muslim nationalities, are growing both absolutely and relative to the Slavic Christian groups within Russia. Indeed, a conference in Moscow this week suggested that there may now be as many as 30 million members of traditionally Muslim nationalities there, more than one-fifth of the total population.

But more than that, such actions, precisely because they are presented as part of the country's new legal system, seem likely to provide additional impetus for political action by Russia's Muslims now and in the future. And to the extent that happens, the Russian government will face a new wave of problems at home and with Muslim countries abroad, a wave set in train by an apparently innocuous requirement for registration