ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — The Kremlin might back away from a new law that would force churches and religious groups to report to the government on their services, sermons and sources of income.
The rules, contained in a law passed in April, have sparked outrage among human rights groups, churches operating in Russia and Western governments, including the European Union.
The Russian government passed the law in an effort to monitor the activities of organizations such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, foreign-funded groups that President Vladimir Putin has warned might interfere in domestic politics.
During his seven years as president, Putin’s government has asserted greater state control over independent Russian media and business. It also has eliminated most political opposition in parliament and turned the country’s governorships from elected to appointed jobs.
In a rare reversal, the Federal Registration Service, which is responsible for enforcing the law, announced Friday it would discuss reviewing the rules as they apply to religious groups.
“I don’t know whether we’ll be able to (change the regulations) before April,” says Victor Korolyov, head of the division overseeing religious organization registration at the Federal Registration Service. Parliament or the president must approve any changes to the law. Korolyov concedes the law will be difficult to enforce on nearly a million religious branches across Russia. He says the government won’t demand that religious groups fully comply for now. Churches are supposed to provide details on their operations by April 15.
The country’s religious leaders say the reporting requirements are onerous and a painful reminder of the religious suppression of the Soviet era. “We think it’s wrong and even impossible to comply,” says Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz, the Catholic archbishop in Moscow.
Metropolitan Kliment, chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church — the country’s largest religious group — warned at a presidential council meeting two weeks ago that the requirement could presage a return to the persecution common during more than 70 years of Soviet rule, when atheism was the official ideology. “We shouldn’t return to the Soviet practice, when the state controlled every step of a religious organization, when they checked the contents of the sermons and all the documents,” Kliment said.
Restrictions on religious freedom began to be relaxed under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. By the end of 2005, there were 22,513 registered religious organizations. Although 70% of Russia’s 143 million people say they are Russian Orthodox Christians, few attend services regularly. The country has about 25 million Muslims, the largest religious minority, and Protestant denominations have more than 2 million followers.
On Dec. 1, five Protestant groups lodged an appeal to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to exclude churches from the law’s accounting rules. Church leaders also met with government officials over the past two weeks to try to persuade them to eliminate or relax the other reporting requirements; they argued that religious groups, which hold hundreds of services in thousands of regional branches, are different from relatively small non-government organizations.
While Moscow ponders changing the reporting requirement, some local officials already are asking church leaders for the names of their followers, even though the law doesn’t explicitly request a list of worshipers. Vladimir Khvalov, senior pastor at the Pentecostal Christ the Savior Church in Rostov-on-Don, says that when he was re-registering his organization six months ago, the local registrar asked him for the names, addresses and passport data of his congregation of about 1,000. “Why do I have to list church members by their names to the registrar?” Khvalov asks. “It’s a privacy issue. Will they next come and ask me for confession disclosures?”
Rights groups worry that the law won’t be changed. Applying the law to religious groups could be a way for the government to target religious groups by accusing them of failing to follow the rules — or even breaking the law, says Sergey Chugunov, an attorney at the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, a Moscow-based rights organization. “This might be selectively used against some organizations, especially in the provinces,” he says.
Konstantin Bendas, spokesman for the Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, says the law’s impact on religious groups was unintentional. “Everyone understood that this law targeted (non-profit groups) that receive overseas grants and funding,” he says. “I don’t think it was specifically targeted against religious organizations.”
Lev Levinson, an expert at the Human Rights Institute in Moscow, hopes the law’s shortcomings could result in a total repeal. “If religious organizations will be relieved of these requirements, why should others still be affected?” he asks.
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