Vienna, October 14 – The Russian justice ministry has published draft amendments to that country’s law on religion that if approved would make it far harder for religious groups to gain official registration and seriously restrict missionary work by members of one faith among other groups, restrictions that have sparked outrage among religious leaders.
The proposed amendments, posted on the ministry’s official website on Monday (www.minjust.ru/common/img/uploaded/docs/2009.10.12_zakonoproekt_missionery.doc) and then detailed in “Gazeta” ( http://www.gzt.ru/topnews/society/266073.html) are so sweeping that opposition from religious groups may lead the Duma to reject them.
The justice ministry’s proposals not only impose limits on who can be part of a religious community that seeks registration with the state but also, in the words of “Gazeta,” requires that “each missionary obtain a number of permissions” including from the government before engaging in proselytizing activities of any kind.
The change in registration procedures is striking. In the past, followers of a particular faith could at least according to the law simply inform officials in local governments about their plans and in most cases receive registration. But the draft amendments impose new requirements: Those seeking registration must turn to the territorial organ of state registration.
That gives Moscow a greater voice, and local officials a lesser one, in determining which groups can register and which cannot. But in addition, the amendments say that no one who has been convicted of inciting inter-ethnic or inter-religious hostility or “other crimes of an extremist nature” can be listed among those seeking registration.
That is no small thing. Not only does it give the authorities yet another reason for rejecting registration, but it places new burdens on religious leaders. Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev of the Moscow Theological Academy, for example, says that churches frequently “do not know who has been convicted or for what.”
Moreover, the outspoken religious activist says, the church “cannot close [its] doors to certain congregants” and points out that representatives of various faiths “conduct services in jails and penal colonies,” something that the new registration rules would seem to make extraordinarily difficult to continue.
But if those provisions are likely to both many religious groups within Russia, the justice ministry’s proposals regarding missionary activity will offend both them and many religious communities abroad which have sent missionaries to Russia or have otherwise supported missionary activities there.
It has long been a complaint among Russian legal specialists that Russian legislation in no place defines missionary activity. The justice ministry seeks to fill that gap with the following definition: missionary work is “the dissemination of one’s own faith among people who are not members, participants or followers of that religious organization.”
Although leaders of Russia’s so-called “traditional” faiths have generally agreed not to “poach” on followers of the others – an agreement some of them are increasingly ignoring -- the justice ministry definition goes much further than that and restricts missionary activities without the permission of the group being proselytized.
Moreover, it puts the state in the position of the guardian of that process, and it requires that missionaries coming in from abroad have written invitations from organizations inside the Russian Federation as well, something that would make it virtually impossible for such people to function as normal missionaries.
Indeed, as “Gazeta” reports, Orthodox Christian churchmen are now pointing out that “the apostles had no documents,” and Father Yevgeny Sokolov, the head of the missionary department of the Orthodox Church’s missionary office in Arkhangelsk, says the proposals are a form of “spiritual terrorism against missionaries” (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=105878).
Given this vocal opposition by the Russian Orthodox Church, the justice ministry proposals may be dead on arrival. Sergey Popov, the head of the Duma committee which oversees religious affairs, told “Gazeta” that the draft amendments were “no more than” proposals.
He said that two weeks from now, his committee is organizing a roundtable to discuss them, and he pointedly said that while legislation is needed in this area, it should be prepared by legislators rather than simply worked up by the bureaucracy. Obviously, some regulation of missionary work is needed, Popov added, but all the other things are open for discussion.