Russia plans further restrictions for religious freedom

Moscow, Russia
March 6, 2002
Die Welt

Background: only "traditional" denominations that have been in existence for more than 80 years and can demonstrate they have more than one million adherents are to receive full religious freedom in the future, according to a proposed law scheduled to be discussed in March by the Duma, which is the Russian Parliament.

Heinz Gstrein

As the presiding chairman of the parliamentary committee for "public associations and religious organizations," Alexander Tschuiev, as sponsor of the new regulations puts it, the initial restrictions after Russia's reorganization on religious freedom in general under President Yeltsin is no longer adequate to protect Russia from the increasing "activation of Christian sects or of new and pseudo-religions." The law "on freedom of conscience and religious association" favors the long-standing Orthodox Church in a one-sided fashion.

Any contribution by the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches to the new Evangelization in the Russian part of the former Soviet Union is connected with practically insurmountable documentation. These concern mainly the difficulties in obtaining visas and residence permits. For instance, the female representative of an interdenominational Christian aid society from Switzerland who has been working in Moscow for ten years may now stay there only provisionally.

Previous provisions for obtaining full religious freedom included a 15-year existence of the applying religious denomination, which means dating from the time of Gorbachev's Perestroika. This provision is fulfilled by Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostal Christians and Reform Christians, but not by the increasingly active Salvation Army (see RNA of 5 March 2002 and 24 July 2001) as well as various Evangelical Non-denominational Churches.

After the newly proposed regulation comes into place, the only decisive obstacle to recognized religious denominations will be the 80-year presence in Russia, in addition to the one million members. Those provisions will not be fulfilled in Russia by any Church of the Reformation or by Eastern Catholics.

There is even a question as to whether Roman Catholics, whose numbers seem to hover somewhere between 600,000 and 1.3 million, will be assured of regaining "full" religious freedom. For denominations that have a "national" character, however, the new law requires a membership figure of 100,000 to gain the privileges of a "traditional" religion. That works in favor of Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and even Armenian Christians.

In view of the present majority relationships in the Duma, where today Russian Orthodoxy, hard-line Communists and other "national Orthodox" have the say-so, there is concern that the new religious law "on traditional religious organizations" will be passed Its passage will mean, in Tschuiev's [approximate .. trans.] words, that the door will be closed on "religious extremism and the invasion of Russia by numerous preachers from the West."


Heinz Gstrein is an orthodox theologian and oriental studies specialist. He lives in Greece and in Switzerland and is a staff of "Glaube in der 2. Welt" (G2W) in Zurich.

Comment from Joe Cisar

It seems that whenever Russia goes to discuss a law on religion, a number of articles on "restricting religious freedom in Russia" appear in international newspapers. Please visit for an alternative viewpoint.

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