In the News:
"The Unorthodox Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia"
Posted April 6, 2004
A week ago, a crowd of Russian Orthodox believers filled a downtown Moscow square to protest the construction of a Hare Krishna temple on the outskirts of the capital. Last Friday, a Moscow district court ruled to ban a Jehovah's Witnesses community. In its International Religious Freedom Report for 2003, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that religious intolerance in Russia is slowly being curbed, at least on the state level. It's still questionable, however, as to how many steps forward this process has gone and how many backwards. With Russian Orthodox Christianity as the historically predominant faith, religion has overlapped into national identity for many Russians. Russian citizens that worship differently, along with foreign missionaries, often have to struggle against ignorance, prejudice, administrative pressure and media harassment. Fortunately, their faith itself is a source of hope.
The U.S. State Department has concerned itself with religious freedom in other states for the past hundred years. As a matter of fact, Russia was the country that originally inspired Teddy Roosevelt to stand up for the freedom of people in another country to believe, preach, and worship as they wish. Way back in 1903, before the advent of the anti-religious Bolsheviks, he gave money to protest the Tsar's persecution of the Jews. Since then Russia has been through two regime changes, yet religious intolerance remains a concern. Judaism is now officially recognized as one of four "traditionally" Russian religions, along with Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism. The Russian Orthodox Church is specifically pinpointed in the Russian Law on the Freedom of Conscience as having contributed to Russia's history and cultural development.
There are definitely more than four religions in Russia, though, and some of them consider their presence historically significant - the Baptists being one example. However, along with religions that are newer to Russia, such as Hare Krishnas or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), they frequently encounter misunderstanding, a lack of support, or worse.
The U.S. Department's report lists multiple instances of difficulties encountered by religious groups, especially those who have been in Russia for less than 15 years. Organizations from nearly every confession have had problems registering and receiving legal status (which confers certain privileges). The most recent example is that of Moscow's Jehovah's Witnesses - the community is not just having its registration revoked (religious organizations can exist without official registration, but without the privileges that come with a legal status), but is in the process of being banned altogether. The Moscow district judge who ruled that the group must discontinue its activities cited their "extremist" activities as the reason.
Other legal difficulties include problems with obtaining visas for foreign missionaries and religious leaders - the Dalai Lama, for instance, has been trying to visit Russia for years.
Russian law provides for the freedom of religion, but a trickling-down of state benevolence is evident, since the law isn't always followed. Pavel Bel'kov of the Russian Union of Evangelical Baptist Christians says that the Union interacts with the government on many levels: "On the highest level, we have a very good relationship." But, despite being invited to government committee meetings, the Baptists encounter problems on the local level. For instance, current law says that a religious organization that owns a building has the right to the land it stands on, for free. "Unfortunately, local authorities frequently oppose this and try to make the Church either rent the land at a high price, or purchase it, also at a high price." Father Igor Kovalevsky, the Secretary General of the Conference of Catholic Priests in Russia, also admitted that local problems arise despite a good relationship with high-level authorities.
Another level on which intolerance is seen is the popular perception of other religions. Orthodoxy first became rooted in Russia over a thousand years ago and although there isn't a state religion, many Russians still identify with Orthodox, at least in name. This is especially so against the background of a growing xenophobia, which sometimes views other religions as a national threat. For instance, Orthodox Russians led the protest against the construction of a new Hare Krishna temple, circulating a petition to ban the building work. The Moscow authorities sanctioned the temple and gave the Society for Krishna Consciousness land to build on.
People have protested against Baptist churches, Bel'kov says - there have been cases of arson and prayers and candlelight vigils by "Orthodox nationalist locals", whom "even the Orthodox priest has disowned, saying he had nothing to do with them." Skinheads and other nationalist groups have targeted Muslims and Jews.
Ignorance seems to be a common source of hatred or just misunderstanding - accusations of sectarianism are enough to get a Russian riled up. "There are still people who think that the Baptists are some sort of a sect that engages in illegal activities and conducts secret meetings where they sacrifice children and drink their blood," Bel'kov says. Many people who support the notion of a Christian Russia don't even realize that Christianity has many denominations. "In the average Russian's mind, Christianity is often identified as Orthodoxy only. We often hear the question: What's the difference between Catholics and Christians? as if Catholics weren't Christians," says Father Igor Kovalevsky of the most common misconception he's encountered.
Media harassment seems to play at least some role - when requesting interviews for this article, MosNews was treated very cautiously by the News Contacts office of the Church of Mormon. Our MosNews reporter was told that there is a strict procedure for interviewing missionaries because the Church has been "slandered enough" by the press.
In general, however, people tend to be more neutral than anything toward other religions, as long as their personal interests are not involved. Almost done with their two-year mission to Russia with the Church of Mormon, Elder McLellan and Elder Burnham report a positive experience overall. "I've really come to enjoy Russian hospitality," Burnham, of Houston, TX, says. Although there have been incidents when missionaries had been threatened, he himself has encountered mostly either willing ears or people who were courteous about their decline to listen to the teachings: "There are people who don't want to listen, but they carry themselves very well, they very politely decline."
But, as the song goes, "You've gotta have faith." The way Father Igor
Kovalevsky sees it, despite the fact that Catholics are destined to be a
religious minority in Russia, they will continue to preserve their faith and
exercise their beliefs in "small, but active parishes," and definitely
cooperate with the Russian Orthodox Church. "We're sister Churches," he
says. Even now, the religious reading materials Catholics distribute in
Russia are mostly of a generic Christian nature, and some are Russian
Orthodox brochures and leaflets. What's the outlook for the Russian
Baptists? Bel'kov believes they have "a good perspective", assuring that
while the Baptists hail from Western Europe, their beliefs are similar to
certain Russian Old-Believer confessions. But, of course, he chuckles, "God