RUSSIA: Draft Religious Policy Revised.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 27 June 2001

On 19 June a revision of the draft religious policy co-authored by the Institute for State-Confessional Relations and Law (ISCRL) and the assistant head of the Moscow city Department of Justice, Vladimir Zhbankov, replaced the original 8 June text on the Internet site www.state-religion.ru. The 19 June text contains a great number of changes in order and wording, the vast majority of which are not substantive.

Perhaps the most significant change concerns state relations with traditional religious organisations. According to the 8 June text, the state `primarily cooperates with those religious organisations, adherence to and a preferential regard for which is expressed by a significant proportion of citizens of the Russian Federation.' While this same phrase remains one of the criteria for defining a religious organisation as traditional in the 19 June text, cooperation is rather to be pursued `taking into account the number of citizens of the Russian Federation who adhere to or have a preferential regard for a given religious organisation'.

The 19 June text still notes that since Orthodox Christianity `has been the state-forming religion in Russia over many centuries: interreligious and state-confessional relations in the Russian Federation greatly depend upon relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.' Whereas the 8 June text went on to say that the state similarly recognises `Islam, Old Belief and other religions traditional for Russia and their corresponding religious organisations' as an inalienable part of the contemporary spiritual life and heritage of the peoples of Russia, however, the 19 June text terminology refers to `the historically-formed traditional spiritual directorates of Muslims, Old Believer and other traditional religious organisations.' Unlike the preamble of the 1997 religion law, the newer text thus veers in the direction of awarding traditional status to religious organisations rather than religions themselves.

The 1997 religion law is viewed more positively by the 19 June text. Whereas the 8 June draft stated bluntly that current legislation on religious affairs `contains legal flaws,' this phrase is now cushioned. Taken as a whole, the current legal norms on religious affairs in Russia have, the 19 June text now declares, `ensured the creation of conditions for the functioning of religious organisations and the realisation by citizens of their right to freedom of belief, but existing problems in application, caused in part by the presence of legal flaws, makes necessary further improvements to the normative legal regulation of the activity of religious organisations.' In addition to suggesting that the government should `rework and amend' the 1997 law for consideration by the State Duma, the 19 June draft text also calls for the drawing-up and adoption of `other normative legal acts necessary for the realisation of this Concept'.

While continuing to omit the possibility of a successor body to the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs, the 19 June text now notes that `the activity of the organs of state power in the sphere of relations with religious organisations in the Russian Federation is insufficiently coordinated and organised, which makes necessary the improvement of its methodological and organisational provision.' One way of realising government religious policy, the new draft ambiguously suggests, is `improvement of the forms of interaction between organs of state power and religious organisations.'

Among the list of influences on current state-confessional relations, `foreign religious expansion into Russia as an element in the foreign policy of a number of foreign states' has been removed, while `activisation of religious organisations which damage the morality, health, rights and legal interests of citizens' now contains the phrase `including foreign [religious organisations]'. Other new elements include `the preservation and consolidation of spiritual and cultural ties with compatriots in the countries of the "near abroad" [the former Soviet republics]' as one of the aims of the draft policy, as well as sections outlining state support for charitable initiatives by religious organisations.

Two further evaluations of the original ISCRL draft were also published on 19 June. Kseniya Chernega, a lawyer attached to the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for Religious Education and Catechism, remarks that `while being based on the norms of the Constitution of the Russian Federation and current legislation on freedom of conscience, this Concept largely fills a gaping hole in our legislation' by introducing the legal terms `traditional religion' and `traditional religious organisation'.

In his evaluation of the ISCRL draft dated 28 May, Pentecostal bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky avers that `generally recognised principles and norms of international law, the international agreements of the Russian Federation and the Russian Constitution find their full expression in the given document'. Similarly to Anatoli Pchelintsev (see KNS 14 June 2001), Ryakhovsky makes a plea for his own confession to be granted traditional status: `Pentecostal religious communities have been active in Russia over more than 100 years, making their contribution to the development of spirituality in our country. Many Pentecostals have been awarded state awards. We are conducting a number of joint projects with other traditional religions of our country.' (END)