Russia’s increasing challenge to religious liberty.
When the Soviet Union sank, human liberty dramatically increased. The great totalitarian tyranny that had consumed millions of its own apparatchiks and tens of millions of its other citizens was gone.
However, the initial years of chaotic liberty have been replaced by ever more stifling authoritarianism. The negative impact has been most obviously felt in the political realm. According to last year’s State Department human rights assessment: “There were numerous reports of governmental and societal human rights problems and abuses during the year.” The list of examples is long and distressing.
Freedom House rates Moscow as “not free.”
The country holds elections but, says Freedom House, “is not an electoral democracy.” Freedom House offers a similar list of human rights abuses, including restrictions on the media, pervasive corruption, limits on freedom of assembly and association, and a subservient judiciary.
Unfortunately, religious liberty also is coming under pressure. The Russian constitution formally protects religious freedom and equality, but, noted the State Department last fall, “the government did not always respect those provisions.” There long have been some limits to this most basic freedom.
Freedom House explained:
Freedom of religion is respected unevenly. A 1997 law on religion gives the state extensive control and makes it difficult for new or independent congregations to operate. Orthodox Christianity has a privileged position, and in 2009 the president authorized religious instruction in the public schools. Regional authorities continue to harass nontraditional groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. In February 2009, the Justice Ministry empowered an Expert Religious Studies Council to investigate religious organizations for extremism and other possible offenses.
The State Department made many of the same points. It explained that there was “generally free practice of religion for most of the population,” but some religious minorities found their rights to be restricted. State also pointed to the 1997 legislation “On Freedom of Conscience and Association,” warning that its provisions “continued to seriously disadvantage some religious groups viewed as non-traditional.” The Federal Security Service (FSS), which has replaced the FBI, increasingly has viewed some faiths as threats to Russian security.
Moreover, the government is increasingly using the Extremism Law passed in June 2002 to persecute nontraditional religions. A group of U.S. religious leaders recently raised the alarm about this dangerous trend in a letter to the president.
Undoubtedly, examples of dangerous extremism exist in Russia. However, the legislation bans far more than violent groups. For instance, the definition of extremism includes “public defamation of any person on duty holding a public office in the Russian Federation” and “infringement on life of a public official or community leader committed with a view of termination of his public or other political activity.”
In March a court in the city of Surgut upheld the seizure of Scientology books and materials as “extremist.” It was an ex parte hearing, at which the church was not represented. The Church of Scientology had previously been denied the right to register under the 1997 law, which requires groups with more than 15 years in the country to sign up as religious organizations.
The Scientologists are not the only victims of the law. The federal list of Extremist Materials to which their publications were added includes nearly 600 publications.
Muslim literature has been denounced as “extremist” because it “propagandizes the idea of the superiority of Islam — and therefore Muslims — over other religions and the people who adhere to them.” Last fall the Russian Supreme Court upheld a government ban on publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist. The local organization was ordered liquidated and its property was seized.
Unfortunately, these are merely the tip of an iceberg of growing repression. The American religious leaders explained to President Obama:
In 2007, the first bans on religious literature were implemented, and the Federal List of Extremist Materials was initiated. Then, in 2008-2009, the Justice Ministry reconstituted its Expert Religious Studies Council and gave it wide-ranging powers to investigate the activity, doctrines, literature and worship of religious organizations and then recommend measures. The appointment of renowned “anti-cultists” and controversial scholars to the Council provoked an unprecedented outcry from many religious representatives and human rights defenders.
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