By Paul Goble
A Duma roundtable this week shows that deputies are preparing to further gut the 1997 Russian Freedom of Conscience Law and bring the power of the Russian state to bear against all religious faiths, including some within the other three “traditional” religions of Russia that law recognized, that the Moscow Patriarchate doesn’t like.
Indeed, the head of the Moscow Institute for Religion and Law suggests that as a result of these and earlier efforts “nothing remains” of that much-criticized law, now that “the time of freedom has ended” in the Russian Federation and “intolerance become fashionable” (sclj.ru/news/detail.php?SECTION_ID=434&ELEMENT_ID=6533 and sclj.ru/news/detail.php?SECTION_ID=436&ELEMENT_ID=6539).
Indeed, Lunkin says, the government appears, if one is to judge from comments at this roundtable on “Sects and Destructive Cults as Challenges to Russian National Security,” to have decided that its legislation allowing it to accuse at will NGOs of being “’Western agents’” is not sufficient in the religious sphere and that there “other, special measures are required.”
Hosted by the Duma committee on the affairs of public and religious organizations, the roundtable featured as speakers Abbot Serapion, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s missionary department, and Aleksandr Dvorkin, who has become notorious as an opponent of Protestants and other sects.
The 1997 law has already been amended this year in unfortunate ways, Lunkin says; but these two figures and their supporters in the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state clearly believe that things have not gone far enough to allow the state to control the religious situation in the country and reinforce the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Now that such people have ensured that non-Orthodox groups have to report their incomes every year, something the Moscow Patriarchate has not done in modern times and now won’t have to in the future, Lunkin says, they want to “draw a line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox” in such a way that “any non-Orthodox Christian or believer in any exotic religious will always feel himself to be ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’” in Russia.
To achieve this goal is quite difficult in today’s globalized world, but “a mechanism has been thought up for the division of believers in the country,” one that involves expanding the definition of the term “sect” to apply to many groups that it has never been used for up to now and declaring, as Dvorkin did, that “the liquidation of churches cannot be called repression.”
Moreover, Lunkin continues, “Abbot Serapion proposed extending the status of ‘foreign agent’ to religious organizations financed from abroad;” and both he and others at the meeting “sounded calls to find ‘enemies’ and ‘spies’ in connection with the Ukrainian situation and the struggle with ‘Western influence.’”
“The main enemies,” in the minds of these people, the religious law specialist said, “are Protestants (Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Adventists), Jehovah’s Witnesses alongside neo-pagans and Wahhabi extremists,” some of whom are to be identified as extremist by asking their opinion about the annexation of Crimea.
Such an approach will make “impossible any manifestation of religious life or missionary activity beyond the limits of ‘traditional religions’ and in fact beyond the limits of the Russian Orthodox Church,” Lunkin says. But it will also likely be used against liberals within the church given the hatred for them that the anti-sect activists have displayed.
Clearly, the religious law specialist concludes, in today’s Russia, “freedom of conscience is not for all” but only for those who have the approval of the state and the Patriarchate.