Religious Freedom in Russia: A Long and Winding Road

Both the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church have expressed concern over the increase in membership of new and minority faiths in Russia. Major membership gains have been made by some groups, particularly by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.

A bill on religious organizations was passed by the Russian State Duma in 1997, seriously restricting the freedom of new and minority faith groups. It was called, somewhat ironically, “On Freedom of Conscious and On Religious Associations”. The vote was passed 337 to 5. The Duma has a working group on religion that is made up of representatives from all major faith groups in Russia, Duma members, as well as the executive branch of the federal government.

The restrictions were approved by a nationalist hard-liner faction within the working group, while others — especially those who favor religious freedom — were excluded from the decision-making process. The Duma revised the bill and passed it again by a vote of 358 to 6, then the upper house approved the legislation.

U.S. Vice-President Al Gore was in Moscow attempting to convince President Yeltsin to veto the bill but was unsuccessful; Yeltsin signed the bill, saying that he felt that it was necessary “to defend the moral and spiritual health of Russia” from destructive cults such as the Aum Shinrikyo. The new version involved only cosmetic changes to the original proposal. It continued to enshrine the Russian Orthodox denomination as the pre-eminent religion. Buddhism, Islam and Judaism were also granted the status of Russia’s “traditional” religions, while other faith groups, including Roman Catholicism, were severely restricted.

In many aspects the law is in clear violation of the Russian Constitution and of the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights. The restriction of rights of groups that have not been recognized by the government prior to 1982 creates a real problem for hundreds of well established faith groups. Religion could not be openly practiced in the country prior to 1990, so few were registered. Thus, for many groups it is virtually impossible to prove that they have been active in Russia for the required minimum of 15 years.

Putting Pressure on the Unorthodox

Many religious groups in Russia have been experiencing regular harassment by local authorities since the mid-1990s. Thus, a Pentecostal congregation in Semnadtsat (about 25 miles west of Moscow) was expelled from the local school where they had been holding Sunday services. The local authorities had unilaterally cancelled a rental agreement, citing both the new federal legislation under debate at the time, and complaints by the local Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1997, the Salvation Army in St. Petersburg was notified that it would be expelled from two meeting halls which it had been renting. The city unilaterally cancelled the contract which was supposed to last until the end of the year. In 2003, a court ruling completely banned the Salvation Army in Russia on the grounds that it is a “paramilitary organization”, as follows from its name.

The same year the Evangelical Lutheran Mission of Khakassia received a notice canceling its registration as a religious organization. A Seventh Day Adventist group in the Urals was also banned under the new law. Officials reasoned that since no Adventist Church traditionally existed in the Urals, meetings could not be legally held. The solution? The Adventists would have to register locally and then wait for 15 years, of course.

Foreign priests and nuns of the Roman Catholic Church have been repeatedly issued visas lasting for only three months, instead of the normal full year. They have to leave Russia before being able to apply for a new visa. Predictably, such regulations are ocassionaly used to put pressure on Catholics.

The Anti-Catholic Campaigns

In fact, it is the Roman Catholic Church that seems to attract the most negative attitudes (more often than not bordering on sheer hatred) both from the Russian Orthodox Church and various xenophobic groups. In 2002, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz even felt it necessary to appeal to Russian and international human rights groups to take notice of what he calls a “large-scale anti-Catholic campaign [in Russia].”

His protest was sparked by a decision by the Russian authorities to refuse entry visas to two Polish Catholic priests, Edward Mackiewicz and Jaroslaw Wisniewski. Russian Foreign Ministry officials offered no explanation for the denial. This incident is just one of many where Catholic priests are expelled from, or denied entry to, Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church normally supports such decisions, saying authorities have the right to “expel foreigners without any explanation”.

This is hardly surprising, given that the Orthodox Church officials have been active critics of the Roman Catholic Church, which they accuse of “proselytizing” in what they consider Orthodox “canonical territory”. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has repeatedly refused to grant an invitation to Pope John Paul II to visit Russia, was extremely angered by the Vatican’s decision last year to upgrade four of its so-called apostolic administrations in Russia to full dioceses. The Catholic Church, in return, insists it is not seeking converts, but simply trying to provide pastoral services to Russia’s estimated 600,000 Catholics, a small minority in a country where roughly two-thirds of Russia’s 144 million people consider themselves Russian Orthodox.

Religion in Numbers

According to a study conducted by the Center of Sociological Research at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, among 1,000 adults in Moscow and 3,000 in the rest of Russia, 43.3% of adults consider themselves Russian Orthodox. 50.6% of adults consider themselves Christian believers. 7.1 percent say that they attend church monthly, and only 3.9% say that they attend church weekly. (This compares to about 40% for Americans, 20% for Canadians, and less than 10% for most of the other industrialized nations. The actual percentage of attendees is about half the stated amount.)

When asked about instituting special privileges for the Russian Orthodox Church, Muscovites were 46% opposed; 32% in favor.

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Protestants in Russia are well represented by Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Mormons, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and Seventh Day Adventists. Eastern Rite denominations, such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, other Orthodox churches, the Old Believers (who split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century) are also active.

The Roman Catholic Church is also well established, the number of Russian Catholics is estimated at 800,000. Other world religions have had a lengthy and significant presence in Russia, particularly Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Native neo-paganism is experiencing a resurgence in some areas. There are many New Religious Movements (NRMs) in the country, including the Vissarion Community in Siberia (4000 members), Hare Krishnas (2,500-3,000 members), the Unification Church (500 members and in decline), and The Family (about 70 members). As in other countries, the rate of defection of NRM members is high. One source indicates that “between 1994 and 1997, at least 70% of those who had joined the UC [Unification Church] eventually left it.”

A general consensus among NRM researchers (not including those of the Anti-Cult and Counter-Cult Movements) is that there have always been fewer than 300,000 NRM members and adherents in Russia. Although there has never been a conviction of any NRMs for criminal activities, there is a widespread fear in the country that these groups are dangerous cults for youths and society in general.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Moscow News, Russian Federation
Mar. 25, 2005
Oleg Liakhovich

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 28, 2005.
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