RUSSIA: RASS Draft Religious Policy Emphasises Secular State.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 13 June 2001

The second draft policy to be published on 8 June, 'Conceptual Bases for Church-State Relations in the Russian Federation,' has been produced by the religious faculty of the Russian Academy for State Service (RASS). As indicated to Keston by faculty employee Veronika Kravchuk on 15 March, its main emphasis is on the Russian Federation as a secular state.

Three times the length of ISCRL's draft policy, the RASS text includes a close analysis of the history and current position of state-confessional relations in Russia, and makes observations which would appear to be unprecedented for a state body. Among the reasons for the growth in religiosity in Russia during the 1990s, notes the draft policy, was a tendency for 'de-facto non-believers to associate their nationality with a particular historical religious tradition (Russian - Orthodoxy, Tatar - Muslim, Kalmyk - Buddhist etc).' Another was the influx of neophytes into all confessions, 'many of whom have a very vague notion about the basic beliefs and canonical norms of the religion to which they have recently converted, but nevertheless display intolerance towards those of other beliefs and nonbelievers.'

Since the head of the RASS religious faculty, Nikolai Trofimchuk, is author of 'Expansion', a recent book detailing the presence of foreign missionaries in Russia as a disturbing geopolitical phenomenon, the draft policy's reference to the need to regulate foreign religious influence is to be expected. Surprisingly, however, it is much less alarmist than ISCRL's text; while noting that 'destabilisation in the religious and socio-psychological situation' has taken place as a result of the appearance of nontraditional confessions and new religious movements in Russia, the draft policy remarks that this is 'a legitimate consequence of the process of democratisation of society.' Local laws prohibiting or limiting missionary activity by representatives of foreign religious organisations in a number of subjects of the Russian Federation, add the RASS authors, were adopted 'under pressure from the diocesan hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, and sometimes also Muslim clergy'.

If such open acknowledgement of church influence on state affairs also strikes one as unprecedented for a state body, yet sterner criticism of what the draft policy terms 'clerical tendencies' is expressed elsewhere: 'Although church hierarchs and the ruling organs of confessions – primarily the Russian Orthodox Church and Muslim organisations - declare themselves removed from politics, they are in fact involved in the games of political forces, and in a certain way they influence the social-political processes taking place in the country with their positions and statements. There are some attempts by church circles to utilise the political situation in order to safeguard their corporate interests by demonstrating their support for structures of power.'

Similarly to but more broadly than ISCRL's draft policy, the RASS text recognises a system of state-confessional relations in which religious organisations participate in those social spheres where their and the state' s interests coincide, such as charitable initiatives, the restoration of historical and cultural heritage and support for the institution of the family. The RASS authors observe that this arrangement - which they prefer to term 'partition' rather than 'separation' from the state - is gradually acquiring the characteristics of cooperation, or partnership, in Russia. Here too, however, warning is given that more developed and albeit fruitful cooperation with certain confessions - 'above all the Russian Orthodox Church' - would lead to 'the violation of constitutional principles and impingement of the rights of religious minorities.'

In this area, while emphasising that the status of legal personality should be genuinely accessible to religious associations, the RASS authors recommend that additional legal norms be introduced according to which a 'traditional' status analogous to that of some other countries would be determined 'according to the length of time the organisation has existed, the number of its believers and so on.' While all religious associations would thus have 'all rights necessary to profess their confession', claims the RASS text, organisations granted traditional status would additionally receive 'privileges and state support for individual aspects of their socially significant activity.'

In its recommendations for state-confessional relations in some specific spheres, however, the draft policy strives for a non-partisan approach. With regard to property, notes RASS, restitution to religious organisations takes place 'at the expense of all Russian citizens, most of whom did not participate in the repressive policies of the past, while in practice the beneficiaries are the present-day members of a religious organisation, most of whom cannot be said to have suffered.' The much-called for introduction of alternative military service would be unsatisfactory, suggests the draft policy, since it would serve only conscientious objectors and leave unresolved the problem of providing equal opportunity for religious worship to all conscripts. A better solution, suggest the RASS authors, would be not to have a conscript army at all, but a professional one. Also receiving notable emphasis on its secular nature in the RASS draft policy is state education: 'Teachers ought to understand clearly the difference between teaching information about religion and religious (confessional) education.'

The main proposal made by the RASS text, however, is none of these recommendations. During the 1990s, it notes, the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) was replaced by 'a whole string of state and social structures, whose combined staff outnumber that of the former CRA' and between which there is a great lack of coordination. Formation of a single state policy in the religious sphere will only be possible, argue the RASS authors, 'once the activity of all these organs is coordinated in a single subordination' - to a federal state organ for affairs with religious organisations. (END)