Vienna, October 15 – The Russian government is seeking Duma approval for amendments to the country’s existing law on religious organizations that would give the powers that be there control over aspects of religious life that even the Soviet authorities did not have, according to an advisor to the Duma committee considering these measures.
Stepan Medvedko, an advisor to the Duma Committee on Social and Religious Organizations said that “even in Soviet times,” Moscow did not seek to so “harshly regulate what was taught in religious training institutions,” an effort that he said would backfire because many religious groups would simply refuse to register with the authorities if this amendment passed.
Medvedko’s comments appear in an article in the current issue of “NG-Religii” devoted to the efforts of the siloviki to strengthen their control over the registration of religious groups, the training of religious leaders, and the dissemination of religious information via the Internet (religion.ng.ru/events/2008-10-15/3_antiekstremism.html).
The Procuracy of the Russian Federation offered these amendments to a Duma hearing on September 30th with the argument that these measures, which are supported by the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, are required as part of the fight against the rising tide of religious extremism.
But if the government expected broad support, it was soon disabused of that, “NG-Religii” points out. The measures were sharply criticized by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), and the chairman of the Duma committee involved.
Both religious representatives and Duma deputies were especially upset by a proposed amendment saying that “at the time of the establishment of religious professional education, the founder must present [to the government] the religious educational program” and provide Russian translations of any work in a foreign language that may be used.
Such a regulation, of course, would hit Muslim training centers especially hard because all of them train their students in Arabic and use Arab texts, including of the Koran, in their training programs. But other faiths also draw on foreign language works and would be affected as well.
But according to “NG-Religii,” many of those testifying against the proposed amendments considered even “more dangerous” a recommendation contained in them that the government should “consider the question of the establishment of a federal organ of executive power on the problems of the activity of religious confessions in the Russian Federation.”
In the view of many religious groups, that represents an effort by the Siloviki to reestablish a Council on Religious Affairs like the one that existed in Soviet times, an idea that the Moscow Patriarchate has consistently opposed and that other groups, including SMR, have said would be appropriate only if tightly circumscribed by law.
“Just how serious these concerns are,” the article concludes, is “difficult to say.” But it suggests that it is a mistake to “conflate the times of state atheism and now because then the government not only controlled the programs of the spiritual academies but censored all official publications of religious organizations.”
Moreover, the Russian government now is seeking laws that will govern not only the actions of the religious groups but of the authorities as well, something the Soviet authorities did not bother to do, preferring instead to employ laws to suggest they supported religious freedom and then act behind the scenes to prevent anyone from realizing it.
Those observations are certainly fair, but there are three reasons why the proposals the Russian government is advancing now should be a matter of concern. First, these amendments if adopted will involve the authorities ever more deeply in religious life, allowing the government to choose among them and thus corrupting the activities of many religious groups
Second, such amendments undoubtedly would be used by the authorities to act against religious groups they do not approve of in the name of law, something that may win Moscow some points in the West for its moves toward a law-based state but inevitably undermine respect among Russians for law as such.
And third, these amendments simply will not work. As several speakers pointed out at the hearing, religious groups ready to register with the state have already demonstrated a certain amount of good faith. If registration involves too many burdens, then at least some of them won’t register, opening themselves perhaps to prosecution perhaps but also and certainly to more radical views