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Russia | Clamping down on "foreign" influences, the Kremlin forces churches to report attendance and even cash donations

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

If Americans have to file their federal tax returns by April 15, the spring date is also gaining infamy among churches in Russia. For them, it is the day next year they have to account for their activities. Except now, the rules just became harder.

Churches have to report to the government who gave them money for offerings, down to cash in the collection plate. They must also list who attended services, including events such as baptisms and weddings. The requirements create so much red tape, evangelical and other religious minority groups worry they will not be able to cope.

"Can you imagine that this law prescribes on a monthly basis that [churches] should count donations from different people?" said Igor Malin, a Baptist pastor from the city of Nizhny-Novgorod. "This is basically impossible to do because the banking system is not working and people give cash."

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The new requirements are part of a January law that requires nonprofit groups to re-register with Russian authorities. Dubbed the "NGO law," locals say the measure is the Kremlin's way of tracking foreign activist interference in Russia, which officials believe spurred people-power revolutions in Eastern Europe.

"The Russian government is simply paranoid today over what happened in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, [and] Kyrgyzstan," explained Sergey Rakhuba, vice president of ministry for the Illinois-based Russian Ministries.

One of Russian Ministries' partner organizations, a Bible school in the North Caucasus, has already felt the heat. Officials came to audit the school, but they were not from a financial authority. Instead, they were from Russia's intelligence service, the FSB. "They were not looking for how much money did you get, but who did you get it from," Rakhuba told WORLD.

The requirements can also turn absurd, according to Forum 18 news service. Officials censured a church in the far eastern region of Chukhotka, which borders Alaska, for not obtaining written parental permission for two children to attend an event. The two, however, are children of the pastor.

Daunted by the bureaucratic load, leaders of five Protestant denominations, including Baptists and Pentecostals, have asked Moscow to annul the requirements for religious groups. Their financial reporting has doubled: Instead of just answering to tax authorities now, churches also have to report to the Federal Registration Service, which registers groups and monitors whether they follow their stated charters.

Limits on religion are not new. They follow Russia's impulses to resist foreign influences and curb Islamic terrorism. In 1997, lawmakers decreed Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as traditional faiths, but restricted groups that could not prove they had operated in Russia for at least 15 years. The Russian Orthodox Church, which now enjoys more recognition, has generally supported putting constraints on evangelical denominations. Now broader provisions on preventing extremism and terrorism are adding to the burden.

"The concept of religious freedom in Russia has been so long gone that they're still grappling with what it means," said Angela C. Wu, international director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Worrisome, however, is how the hits to religious freedom fit into Russia's larger authoritarian trend. As the Kremlin absorbs more power, local governors have lost authority and few independent media outlets remain. And with an ever-expanding investigation into the murder of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, Russia's track record on political assassinations is also under scrutiny.

But rather than being under direct attack, Wu says, churches are more likely simply part of the collateral damage. "It's very hard to grasp [Russian president Vladimir] Putin's motivations," Wu said. "It's a little bit more about control and protecting Russian national identity." With their existence threatened, however, religious groups are finding that motives do not make much difference.

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