New Russian religion law harms minority churches


The authorities in the remote Siberian territory of Khakassia have claimed the dubious distinction of being the first to implement Russia's new "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations". As a result, the local Lutheran churches have had their state registration rescinded and may now be deprived of their freedom to hold services, run educational establishments and accept members.

Critics of the new law include representatives of Protestant denominations, the US Vice-President, Mr Al Gore, the Vatican and a number of Russian human rights groups. Among those who could be adversely affected are five Irish Catholic priests working in Russia, including Father Philip Andrews, a nephew of the Minister for Defence, Mr Andrews.

Father Andrews ministers to a congregation in Samara, a large city on the Volga which was a centre of ethnic German population until forced removals to central Asia took place under Stalin during the second World War.

In effect, the new legislation, which has now formally become operative, will recognise the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as "traditional" religions in Russia which will be allowed to operate without hindrance.

The key objection from Protestants and Catholics is to the clause which restricts the operations of churches described as "foreign religions" which have not registered with the state in the past 15 years. For much of that time, "the state" was the USSR, with which many churches refused to register.

These churches would not, under the new legislation, be permitted to hold services, distribute literature, run educational establishments or invite foreign nationals to preach. Their clergy would not be exempt from military service.

The "15-year clause" has stirred up a hornet's nest among adherents of religious organisations in Russia. Those churches which went underground during the communist regime regard themselves now as being penalised and have charged the Orthodox church with having collaborated with the communists in the past and Mr Boris Yeltsin's administration in the present.

These charges come not alone from non-Orthodox Christians but also from within the Orthodox community. In the Moscow office of Father Gleb Yakunin, for example, photocopies of a document purporting to come from the Estonian branch of the KGB are available. The document claims that His Holiness Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, was once known as Agent Drozhdov (The Thrush) of the Committee for State Security (KGB).

Father Yakunin has a political axe to grind in that he was defrocked by the Patriarch after he was elected as a Democrat to the State Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament).

Similar allegations of KGB activity have been made against other leading churchmen, notably Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, who later headed a newly-autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Alexy has been a strong supporter of Mr Yeltsin's administration and his church has received a number of privileges, including once getting permission to import duty-free tobacco and liquor for sale on the open market. Last month, Mr Yeltsin awarded Patriarch Alexy a medal for "services to the fatherland".

Ostensibly, the new law has been introduced to curb the activities of pseudo-religious sects which have mushroomed since the end of communist rule. Some of these cults are extremely dangerous. The White Brotherhood, run by a former activist of the Komsomol (Young Communist) organisation, has attracted tens of thousands of young people, along with their life savings, with the promise of immunity from an imminent armageddon which was to spread outwards from St Sophia's cathedral in Kiev and engulf the world.

However, many religious and political leaders have expressed concern that the law will curtail more traditionally-accepted religions. On a recent visit to Moscow, Mr Gore said he considered the legislation to "discriminate against most religions". The law is a revised version of a Bill which was earlier vetoed by Mr Yeltsin.

IN its new format, the main concession has been to enshrine "Christianity" as one of Russia's traditional values. Mr Lawrence Uzzell, of the Keston Institute in Britain, which monitors religious developments in Russia, said the changes in the law "give with the one hand and take away with the other".

Most foreign religious priests and ministers in Russia fear that the legislation could be used by police officers and precincts, many of them steeped in corruption, to harass "non-traditional" churches and their adherents. Among religious believers in Russia, the Orthodox church has by far the largest number of members, while Judaism, despite large-scale migration to Israel, is still widespread.

In certain regions of the Russian Federation, such as in Tatarstan and parts of the Caucasus, Islam is the majority religion. Among the Buryat peoples of eastern Siberia, Buddhism is predominant. However, in a multi-ethnic state which ranges territorially from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan, other faiths are to be found. Baptist churches have traditionally had a strong following among Russians; there has been a strong Lutheran and a less-important Roman Catholic tradition among the Volga German population.

Most Catholics are Russians of Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian extraction. Many of these "ethnic Catholics" and "ethnic Protestants", whose families lost touch with their faiths during the communist period, wish to return to their respective folds. The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations could make this almost impossible.