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Window on Eurasia: New Regulations Threaten Religious Freedom in Russia

Three reports from Moscow over the last several days highlight the various ways in which Moscow appears to be using ostensibly neutral regulations to increase its control over some religious organizations in that country and thus limit the religious freedom of all Russian citizens.

First, on Friday of last week, the government’s commission on religious organizations met and issued new recommendations to the Russian Pension Fund and Ministry of Health on how those bodies should calculate the pensions of religious leaders whose careers began in Soviet times, and other agencies reported the same day.

The new rules would allow many religious leaders to count toward retirement all the years of their service in Soviet times and not just those since 1990, a change that would dramatically increase their government pensions and allow at least some senior churchmen to retire if that is what they would like to do.

Among the religions whose clergy would be given that right are the Russian Orthodox Church, the Federation of Jewish Communities, and Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and also representatives of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD).

For many, this change is a remarkable step forward in state policy, but as the news portal noted on Monday, there is no reference to any pension adjustments of this kind for all Muslim mullahs in the two other major MSDs – the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and the Coordinating Council of Muslims of the North Caucasus.

It may be that this is simply an omission in the news reports, but it may also reflect Moscow’s ongoing efforts to try to force all Muslim groups into a single organization, in this case the Ufa-based Central MSD. Presumably – although this too is not clear – Muslim leaders who join it could then get credit for earlier service. 

Second, on Monday, Mikhail Voronin, a Moscow lawyer, told the Interfax news agency that amendments to legislation governing religious groups that are now being prepared for Duma consideration later this year would strip all parishes and other primary religious organizations of their legal personhood.

That would mean that these groups could not have checking accounts, could not rent or buy property, and could not enter into contracts with anyone except via hierarchies like the Patriarchate or the Muslim Spiritual Directorates which Voronin said would retain this legal status.

Such a change in legislation would throw most of these groups back to the situation in which they found themselves in Soviet times before the changes during Perestroika. And it would put control over religious groups in the hands of narrow circles of religious hierarchs and government officials.

These hierarchies, Voronin said, would have “unbelievable power over the distribution of church property and consequently parishes in the persons of their leaders and Orthodox citizens would be deprived of any rights” in this area. He did not say so, but the same situation would obtain for all other religions as well.

Voronin said that he and others concerned about religious liberty in the Russian Federation would oppose the adoption of this change and, if it is nonetheless adopted, challenge this measure as a violation of the 1993 Russian Constitution that enshrines the principle of religious liberty.

But the third report this week suggests that he and others may face an uphill battle if they are forced to take that step.  In an interview in the current issue of “Profil’,” Valeriy Zor’kin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, made a series of comments that many concerned with the rights of non-Orthodox believers will find disturbing.

He said that he believes that “in the broad sense Russia is Christ’s country,” with the only “complexity” being that “in Russia there are a large number of Muslims.” He added that Christianity led in the recognition of the human being as something valuable and that the idea of freedom of religion was “an achievement of European civilization.”

None of the justice’s assertions about the special role of Christianity in Russia or in law is universally acceptable, and all of them are certain to be offensive to followers of non-Christian groups, in particular to Muslims as the website pointed out yesterday. 

And even though many of these views may be widely held, it is certainly a matter of concern not only for religious minorities but for all who believe in religious freedom when the leading jurist on the highest court charged with upholding the rights enumerated in  Russian Constitution expresses them so openly and without any qualification.