Vienna, October 16 – The Russian Ministry of Justice said yesterday that it would ask the courts to close 56 religious organizations for failing to provide the documents required to maintain their registration, an action that affects groups the Kremlin does not like but does not touch any structure subordinate to the pro-Kremlin Moscow Patriarchate.
In making this announcement, “Gazeta” reported today, the ministry said it “plans to liquidate through the courts 56 Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Islamic, Armenian, Karaim, and Buddhist organizations,” a listing obviously intended to suggest that the justice ministry was only interested in enforcing the law (www.gzt.ru/society/2008/10/15/223036.html).
But the paper pointed out that “not one of the communities of the Russian Orthodox Church is on the list, even though the Church itself has more than noted that [its] poor and distant parishes (and there are more than 400 of these) are not capable of doing the [annual] reporting” the government requires.
Among the groups the ministry is targeting are the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Middle Volga, the MSD of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the MSD of the Association of Mosques of Russia, bishoprics of the Kyiv patriarchate and of the Old Believers, the Moscow branch of the Institute for the Study of Judaism, and an alternative Buddhist spiritual directorate.
Some of these groups have gotten in trouble with the government for the expression of views Moscow does not now approve of, and others are opposed by leaders in their respective faiths who now as in the past are only too pleased to have the government do their work for them by closing down their opponents.
But two things make this announcement especially disturbing. On the one hand, as “Gazeta” noted, this move appears to reflect the opinion widespread in today’s Russia that since “80 percent of the population is Orthodox,” with only 20 percent following other faiths, the percentage of religious organizations should correspond to that division.
In fact, it is far from clear that the number of Russian citizens who are actually believers corresponds to that division, but it is certainly the case that the percentages of religious organizations does not. At present, some 20 percent of the religious communities in Russia and 22 percent are Muslim, meaning that the Orthodox share is just over half.
This move could be the beginning of a Russian government effort to “correct” this situation by the use of technical violations as a justification for shutting down groups not connected to the Russian Orthodox Church while ignoring similar violations by Orthodox congregations.
And on the other, such official arbitrariness in this case opens the door to arbitrariness in a different direction in the future. While some Orthodox Christians and Russian nationalists may be only too pleased with the justice ministry’s current decision, they could easily find themselves targeted in the future.
At the very least, this action of the justice ministry undercuts Moscow’s increasingly frequent claims that it is building a law-based state and sends a chilling message to all individuals and groups in Russia that their well-being depends not on whether they obey the law but rather on whether those in power approve of what they do.