Vienna, October 23 – Commentators on Russian religious life are accustomed to dividing the religious communities of that country between those which are registered with the state and thus enjoy certain protections and those which are not registered and thus do not exist as legal entities.
But there is emerging what may prove to be an equally deep divide among registered communities, between the 74 percent of 23,000 of them which are members of Russia’s four “traditional” religions – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – and the 26 percent of that category which are members of other faiths, including primarily Protestants and Catholics.
And while the concept of “traditional” religion is nowhere defined in Russian law, Patriarch Kirill, its advocate for more than a decade, has been successful in convincing officials like President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to employ that term, something that in the Russian context can have serious consequences.
In an essay on the Baznicz.info religious affairs portal, I.V. Podverzsky argues that those groups which are registered but not part of the “traditional” faiths are likely to face increasing difficulties because of Russian understandings of the rights of “majorities” and “minorities” in religion as well as politics (www.baznica.info/index.php?name=Pages&op=page&pid=5964).
Russians today and especially Russian officials, the religious affairs analyst says, “often understand democracy almost exclusively in terms of the obligation of the minority to subordinate itself to the majority and as the right of the majority to dictate its will to the minority” and to “have the final word on all issues.”
Of course, Podverzsky continues, “one must never ignore the rights of the majority.” But “this is not so when it comes to questions of law or even more to those of faith.” There, the assertion of the right of a majority – in Russia of the Orthodox majority – can lead to the persecution of minorities, which many Orthodox churchmen lump together as “sects.”
Indeed, he writes, “in Russia, the very existence of a minority is not infrequently conceived of as a challenge to the existing order of things, as a challenge to the powers that be, which with [many Russians] have an absolute (and not just an instrumental) value,” who view “moral-political unity” as something that should be pursued by all available means.
But human beings in general and believers in particular “are obligated to follow the truth, and no majority has the right to demand from [them] to act against [their] conscience. When Gamsakhurdia was elected president in Georgia,” Podverzsky says, a wise man had “the courage to say that if the people were for Gamsakhurdia, then he is against the people.”
Even more, “divine truth like by the way scientific truth) is not achieved by voting. It originates from above, from God Himself,” the Russian religious affairs analyst points out. And consequently, the most thoughtful Orthodox have asserted that “One man plus the Holy Spirit is a majority,” something the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian government often forget.
This is seen most obviously in the Patriarchate’s support for a campaign against “sects,” a religious category that “civilized countries have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to give a legal definition of,” all the more so since even major faiths, like Christianity, were initially viewed as “sects” by their detractors.
Because there is no precise definition of sect in Russia, Podverzsky continues, the Moscow Patriarchate has sought and the Russian government has agreed to deny registration to many religious groups for no other reason than because they are marginal and independent. And some are exploiting this elasticity to try to restrict the rights of non-“traditional” faiths.
No one denies that there are sects whose members engage in dangerous or illegal actions – and those actions should be punished by the government – but there is a danger now that “under the pretext of supporting ‘spiritual security,’ the [Russian] government is in fact conducting an open struggle against practically all religions except one.”
Those in unregistered communities already know what that means, but on the basis of Kirill’s arguments about “traditional” religions and the Russian understanding of “majoritarian” democracy, those who are part of the nearly 6,000 religious groups which are registered but are not one of the four “traditional” faiths may become the object of that struggle as well.
Even if Podverzsky’s argument is overstated – and it seems unlikely that Moscow secular or religious will move against all of these groups at once anytime soon – the danger he points too suggests that those who care about religious freedom should not conclude that if the Russian state registers a religious group, members of that group will have all the protection they need.