Laying down the law

International | Russian officials are taking seriously a repressive law against religious minorities, but a few find loopholes

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

When a judge in the Siberian town of Aldan ruled two weeks ago that a local Pentecostal church violated Russian law because its members refused medical care, it was not the first time "faith healing" had been condemned under a democratic legal system. But the court went further. It said the church group also broke the law by teaching children at home. That kind of syncopated crackdown against many religious groups is becoming a pattern across Russia, as a 15-month-old law that restricts the activities of many Christian denominations starts to bite. In February, 400 Pentecostals from the eastern port city of Magadan applied for asylum in the United States, claiming they are being harassed by local officials. Their church, established in 1982 after years of operating underground, has suffered repression reminiscent of anti-religious campaigns of the Soviet era, members told U.S. diplomats. Last June a local prosecutor opened the case against Word of Life Pentecostalist Church, accusing pastors of hypnotizing members in order to get donations. Two months later the city's mayor granted permission to the local chapter of the neo-fascist Russian National Unity party to rally outside the church during Sunday services. In December and January, tax police raided church offices in the middle of the night to confiscate files. Members were called in for questioning by security officials and threatened with loss of their jobs. "For a long time, we believers waited for freedom in Russia," said assistant pastor Alexander Vasilyenko, in Moscow to deliver the asylum applications. "But in a lot of ways, that freedom has turned out to be imaginary." In a forthcoming report from the Keston Institute, Russian experts say 69 incidents of harassment, restriction, or threats against non-Orthodox religious entities have been documented since a 1997 law against religious minorities took effect. The law recognizes the Russian Orthodox Church as the country's dominant religion. While pledging respect to Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, the statute restricts minority Christian denominations in many ways. They must prove they have been present in Russia for at least 15 years in order to gain full legal status. Uneven enforcement is now giving way to erratic but swift, Soviet-style repression of some Bible-believing groups. The London-based journal acknowledges that its accounting of the harassment may be inconclusive. But the demographics of discrimination are revealing. Of the 69 reported incidents:

  • 52 involve Protestant groups (37 were considered indigenous, 11 were foreign missionary organizations, and four were both).
  • Eight involve Catholics.
  • Six go against Orthodox churches, including two reprisals against clergy connected with the predominant Moscow Patriarchate because they did not support the 1997 law.
  • Five are against cults.
  • One affects Old Believers.
  • One involves Jews. Legislators and Orthodox leaders who clamored for the law said its aim was to blot out the inordinate influence of Western cults and an influx of Protestant missionaries. However, cults and Protestant missionaries make up 28 percent of crackdown cases; the majority, 60 percent, are directed against homegrown Protestant groups. "Life since passage of the law has not been easy for many who wish to worship outside the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate," said Mark Elliott and Sharyl Corrado, who co-author the Keston article. Russia's ruling clergyman, Patriarch Alexy II, turned 70 last month. He defended the law in a birthday interview with Itar-Tass news agency, saying it helped Russia to "protect itself against attempts to impose an alien will on it." He said it also preserves "the spiritual integrity of Russian society." After shedding communist repression, Orthodox leaders quickly discovered that what they do not like about religious freedom is the influence of Western cults. Protracted court cases against Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists have already been brought under the religious registration law. Likewise, variant styles of worship make Pentecostals easy prey under the law because they appear to be cult-like. In one case, church members reportedly prepared to lock themselves in a government building and threatened mass suicide if official harassment did not end. Pentecostal leaders criticize those tactics. But Pentecostals are not the only Protestants singled out. Local officials took the Evangelical Lutheran Mission in Khakassia to court after the 1997 law passed. Prosecutors hoped to revoke its registration because the mission is supported in part by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Locals threatened church members and tried to block services. The Lutheran mission had its state registration canceled by the Khakassian Supreme Court last September. But the mission took the case to the Russian Supreme Court, which in November revoked the cancellation of the mission's registration and sent the case for further investigation. On Feb. 12, the Khakassian Supreme Court reversed itself and reinstated the registration. The U.S. State Department annual report on human rights, released Feb. 26, cited the Russian law and its discriminatory practices. It said the Orthodox Church has "special arrangements" with government agencies not available to other religious groups. It also said that "piecemeal" issuing of regulations and harassment at local levels, as in Khakassia, effectively dampened the freedom to worship. The report cites two challenges to the constitutionality of the religion law, which may surface in court later this year. Russian legal expert Lauren Homer said Russian authorities have been "creative" in issuing regulations and guidelines to make the 1997 law appear to conform to international human-rights standards. Yet its intent is emerging. "It remains the fact that individual congregations that cannot meet the '15-year' standard have dramatically fewer rights than older organizations and that foreign religious workers usually cannot obtain an immigration status that allows them to serve ... in religious organizations," she said. If coming events cast a shadow before them, then Russia's economic crisis will not aid the cause of religious freedom. "Scapegoating and harassment and even violence against minority faiths and newer faiths will accelerate," Ms. Homer said, "as Russia's economic and political life continues to founder." Factors working against targeted churches, at the same time, are keeping the number of incidents lower than some observers predicted. Russians are historically adept at finding ways around official dictums. Ambiguity in the 1997 law means, in some areas, it is not seriously enforced. Legal advocacy groups are emerging to lend expertise to churches hassled by the law. Vladimir Ryakhovsky and Anatoly Pchelintsev, directors of the Slavic Legal Center in Moscow, defended the Khakassia mission in court. Mr. Ryakhovsky believes non-Orthodox groups may have a loophole in the law because it fails to restrict "centralized religious organization." Forming such an organization, he says, could be a way out of discrimination and punishment once the registration phase ends. Religious groups must register with the government by a December 1999 deadline to avoid penalties.

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