Summarized by Kent Larsen
Russia's Religion Law May Still Threaten LDS Church
Manchester UK Guardian pg1 22Jan00 N1
By John O'Mahony
Russia's war on God is over. But an alliance between the orthodox church and the state has led to a disturbing campaign of religious intolerance.
With the passing of the millennium, the most stringent conditions of
Russia's 1997 religious law were put into place, and fully half the
religious congregations in Russia lost their status as legal entities.
If the law is enforced, those congregations can't legally worship in
public, own property, have bank accounts and engage in missionary or
charitable work. While all LDS congregations in Russia are evidently in
compliance with the law, they may still be vulnerable to other
provisions of that same law, ones that give local governments broad
discretion in regulating religions and enforcing the law.
Since the fall of the Soviet government, the Russian government has
become 'uncomfortably' close to the Orthodox Church, and the Church has
reciprocated with support for the government, such as its endorsement of
the current war in Chechnya. The Church used this influence to push
through the Russian Duma the 1997 religion law, which some human rights
groups claim has triggered a 'secret offensive' by elements in the
government against 'non-traditional' religions in Russia.
In fact, the old Soviet government was known to recruit KGB agents from
the Orthodox Church, "The communist party built the church in its own
image," says dissident orthodox priest Father Georgi Edelshtein, whose
outspoken views mean he is ostracised by the Patriarchate. "All the
bishops were carefully picked so that they would work with the soviet
government. All were KGB agents. It is well known that Patriarch Alexy
was recruited by the KGB, under the code-name of Drozdov. Today, they
are preserving the same politics that they had 20 or 30 years ago."
Larry Uzzell, of the Keston institute, which runs a religious news
service, says that this means that the Church bureaucracy has many
former communist bureaucrats, including Victor Kalinin, who is now a
legal advisor to the Church and was a major force behind the 1997 law.
"It's as if post-war Germany had employed an ex- Nazi to oversee ethnic
The law gave a 'special role' to the four main religions in Russia,
Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. But all religions were required
to meet stringent conditions and each congregation was required to
re-register with the state before December 31, 1999. If they failed to
register, they would no longer be recognized legal entities.
The Orthodox Church saw the influx of sects like Rev. Moon's Unification
Church and the Aum Shinrikyo cult as a threat to the nation. "It became
obvious that the legal situation at the time was quite unconnected to
reality," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, an Orthodox priest who helped
draft the 1997 legislation. "Any of these groups could set themselves up
as a religious organisation with just 10 signatures. This new law gives
the government the right to curtail the activities of destructive
organisations. Most older religions have no reason to worry."
But the influx of many other religions, including the LDS Church, has
also been seen as a threat to the Church because of the number of people
leaving Orthodoxy. And many areas of the law are so badly drafted and
contradictory, that local officials can choose how to enforce it, "From
a purely legal point of view," says Vladimir Riakhovsky, director of a
center that guides churches through the registration process, "This is
an extremely badly-made law, riddled with contradictions and
imprecision. That's why the bureaucrats can read it in exactly the way
they want. One of the conditions for the liquidation of a church
institution is the violation of social order. What does this term mean?
Since the law offers no definition, it can mean anything."
And local bureaucrats are using the law as they wish. Catholic Jesuits
and Baptists have had applications to local authorities turned down for
arbitrary technical reasons. The Pentecostal church has been widely
obstructed and "liquidated" (i.e., disbanded) in the city of Khazan by a
court order. Recently, the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced a lawsuit in
Moscow claiming that they "instigated religious enmity" simply because
they claimed that they were the only true faith. They also are charged
with "causing family breakdown" for expecting believers to put the
religion first in their lives. The Church of Scientology has also seen
regular raids by police.
Journalist and religious campaigner Yakov Krotov says this is the start
of a bad situation, "In Russia, the law and the legal system can be
regarded only as a system of signals. What this new religion act has
done is send out a signal that it is now right to persecute minority
But the government's inefficiency will most likely mean that religions
will only face problems in some areas of the country. Larry Uzzell of
the Keston institute, says that the overall weakness of the Russian
government means that the capacity for oppression throughot the country
is limited, "What we have found is that implementation of the law
fluctuates wildly from one province to another. The law is so vague and
the state so unwieldy that it has not only created 'fortresses of
oppression' but some 'islands of religious freedom', Kostroma,
Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg."
And, the Orthodox Church may suffer as much or more than other
religions. The Church has the largest number of unregistered
congregations, while new Churches like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the
LDS Church have none. Some local governments may take advantage of the
situation and 'liquidate' Orthodox parishes, "In Moscow and St
Petersburg they are unlikely to liquidate parishes," says Lev Levinson
of the Duma committee on religion, "but they might do so in
Karachayevo-Cherkessiya or Tatarstan." (Regions where orthodoxy is not
the majority faith.)