#14 - JRL 7032
January 24, 2003
Eroding Religious Freedom
By Lawrence Uzzell
Lawrence Uzzell is a freelance writer who has specialized in religious
freedom in the former Soviet Union since 1989. He contributed this comment
to The Moscow Times.
When President Vladimir Putin rejected legislation narrowing freedom of the
press last autumn, experienced journalists restrained their enthusiasm.
They knew that the lawless Russian state does not need statutory changes in
order to erode human rights. The fact that the Kremlin was considering the
idea was enough to intimidate.
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A Russian government task force is now refining proposals to outlaw
"religious extremism." The task force, led by the nationalities minister
Vladimir Zorin and Moscow-appointed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov,
evidently believes that this category includes almost every religious
entity not servile to the Russian state -- including all Roman Catholics
and most Protestants. Its draft report proposes "technical intelligence
measures" against suspected "religious extremists," and six-year prison
sentences for those found guilty.
Among the suggested signs of "extremism" is "propaganda of the
of one religion over another." If the authorities were to apply that
criterion consistently they would have to outlaw the Russian Orthodox
Church -- which like most serious religions (or secular ideologies)
proclaims that its beliefs are objectively true. The "extremist" tag would
give the authorities the power to shut down any religious body they dislike
-- perhaps because it protests atrocities in Chechnya, or simply refuses to
Whether or not such ideas are formally enacted, it is almost certain that
Russians will have less religious freedom a year from now than today. They
already have less today than last year: For example, not one of the five
Roman Catholic clergy expelled from the country since last April, including
Bishop Jerzy Mazur, has been allowed to return.
Anatoly Krasikov, who once specialized in church-state relations for the
Yeltsin administration, told me recently that the Zorin-Kadyrov task force
is part of an "overall tendency" in today's Russia to assume that any
religion that grows rapidly is inherently suspect. The task force frets
that such growth "has upset the ethno-confessional balance ... and has
provoked the growth of interconfessional competition." In fact, it is far
from clear that the growth of Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations
has come at the direct expense of Russia's traditional faiths. The typical
Russian convert to Protestantism is a former agnostic or atheist, not a
practicing Orthodox Christian. Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz calculates
that only a few hundred ethnic Russians have converted to his own flock --
which consists mostly of ethnic Poles and others whose ancestors were Roman
Catholics. But the lingering Soviet mentality demands a search for "enemies."
That mentality includes an almost hysterical emphasis on the foreign ties
of both Roman Catholics and Protestants, with phrases such as "religious
expansion on the part of other states" -- as if Western missionaries were
employees of the U.S. government, as if Orthodox Christianity itself were
not originally a Mediterranean faith brought to Russia by Greek
missionaries. The draft text reflects not so much the influence of Russian
Orthodox clergy as that of secular nationalist writers like the late
Nikolai Trofimchuk, who treat missionaries as mere pawns of geopolitics.
On Muslims as well as on Christians, the draft's misinformation is
breathtaking. It lists Turkey and Malaysia as "Arabic" countries. It treats
all Islamic movements not directly or indirectly controlled by the Russian
state as adherents of Wahhabism, the fanatical Saudi branch of Islam that
includes only a tiny minority of Muslims outside the Middle East. A rough
equivalent would be to label all opponents of Marxism as "fascists."
Recently, Putin met with mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin in Ufa, giving rise to
speculation that he may force all of Russia's Muslim congregations to join
one unified structure of which Tadzhuddin would be head. Another possible
candidate for that post is Kadyrov. Either choice would further consolidate
Islam's status as one of Russia's de facto state religions, dependent on
Kremlin favoritism like the Moscow Patriarchate. It would also make
extremism more attractive to dissident Muslims.
Bizarrely, Kremlin favoritism has also become an element in Jewish life.
Putin has meddled in what any law-governed state would regard as a purely
internal disagreement within the Jewish community: the duel between two
rivals for the title of Russia's chief rabbi. Rabbi Adolf Shayevich
unfortunately allowed himself to be identified with Putin's archenemy
Vladimir Gusinsky. That is why Putin has been treating Shayevich's rival
Berl Lazar as if he were the sole legitimate leader of all the Jews in
Russia. Here as elsewhere, the current trend is for the Russian state not
just to favor one religion over another, but to favor a selected faction
within a single religion.
This practice is especially burdensome for Protestants with decentralized
forms of governance, forcing them to join "centralized religious
organizations" such as the Russian Baptist Union, which enjoy artificial
advantages under the law. The fiercely independent "initsiativniki"
Baptists, by contrast, have in recent years met growing obstacles to
activities such as distributing religious literature. These obstacles are
likely to continue multiplying, especially since the most influential
Western missionary groups and religious-freedom activists are primarily
oriented toward the large, centralized Protestant bodies.
Thus the Kremlin's tactics of "divide and rule" are working --
at splitting Roman Catholics from Protestants. For the most part the
Vatican has done little to resist the growing restrictions on Russian
Protestants. At one point, Pope John Paul II even sent Boris Yeltsin a
letter asking him to add the Catholics to the list of Russia's "traditional
religions" with privileged status. Russia's Protestant leaders are in turn
now largely ignoring the crackdown on Roman Catholic clergy.
We may now see that crackdown intensify. President George W. Bush's
national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, did Kremlin hard-liners a
favor when she said last spring -- just a few weeks after Bishop Mazur's
expulsion -- that during his visit to Russia Bush would be able "to witness
firsthand the right to freedom of worship, which is now thriving in
Russia." After that, the hard-liners probably had little doubt that they
could get away with expelling more Roman Catholic clergy. Although there
have been no further such expulsions since September, the Russian Foreign
Ministry has actually hardened its position, openly siding with the
Orthodox Church on the purely ecclesiastical issue of new Catholic dioceses
in Russia. The best the Catholics can probably hope for is a freeze on
founding new parishes or on recovering church buildings stolen from them by
Will Orthodox Christianity become the new communism, a compulsory state
ideology? Probably not, although many in today's elite would like to see
Putin can get all the Orthodox support he needs from gestures such as
photo-ops at church services and from state subsidies. But the Moscow
Patriarchate has less real influence on him than it did on Yeltsin. Its
leaders complain about not being consulted on key issues such as proposals
to create a new state religion agency, which the Patriarchate believes
would be a rival power center to itself. The number of serious Orthodox
believers is not large enough to outweigh the risks of offending the
secularized majority for whom Orthodoxy is merely a badge of ethnic
identity -- and the most serious believers are not interested in politics
Far from becoming a theocracy, Putin's Russia will simply continue to give
the Moscow Patriarchate and other privileged religious bodies just enough
concessions to keep them tame and the rest intimidated.