As most of us know, organized
religion was categorically banned during the Soviet years.
Nevertheless, many traditions persisted and survived. Best known
of these religious sects is the Russian Orthodox Church
considered to be the official religion of modern Russia. But,
many other spiritual traditions are present within the vast
Russian Federation and their standing is now in jeopardy.
Under attack are countless
Islamic, Protestant and breakaway Orthodox groups. There are
roughly 17,500 religious groups in Russia where a highly
controversial 1997 law requires that they be accepted and
registered on the governmental list of authorized faiths by
December 31, 2000. Roughly half of these groups made the list.
At the center of the
controversy is the constitutionality of the 1997 law. The Constitution
of the Russian Federation, passed in 1993, guarantees religious
freedom in Article 14: 1) The Russian Federation is a secular
state. No religion may be established as the State religion or a
compulsory religion. 2) Religious associations are separated
from the State and are equal before the law.
The Salvation Army, known
worldwide as a bone fide Protestant charity and community
service organization, considers the law unconstitutional. They
are registered with all regional authorities, but have been
rejected by Moscow where they are considered to be a subversive
military group. Salvation Army leaders find this puzzling and
disturbing as they are certain that Moscow realizes that they
are not an army in the militant sense.
Baptist congregations, in
Russia, number about 1,400 with approximately 100,000 members.
They, along with Pentecostals, are facing official acceptance
problems. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been taken to court four
times in the past four years for their activities. The Russian
Orthodox Church is highly critical of them for their aggressive
The Mormons, which number ca.
11,000 in Russia, accuse the Russian Orthodox Church of
censoring religion and spiritual faith in Russia creating a
climate where religious freedom is a myth. The 1997 law is
opposed by both the Vatican and the U.S. Government.
Religious groups who have
failed to make the 'A' list of authorized organizations
experience a debilitating status. Typically, they are not
allowed to conduct services or gatherings, pass out literature,
own property or host foreign guests. Russia's current Interior
Minister, Vladimir Rushailo, considers the growing number of
religious sects as a possible threat to national security.
President Boris Yeltsin, who
had allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexis
II, devised the religion law in 1997. It acknowledged five
official religions in Russia. Orthodoxy was first followed by
Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. Belonging to own of
these categories does not automatically guarantee acceptance on
the register. Any group considered to be dissident or a break
away from the mainstream version of its sect is often rejected.
This law came about at the urging of the Russian Orthodox
Church. The Church felt/feels particularly threatened by
Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Mormons; all known for their
aggressive proselytizing practices. The Church and the religion
law also targets groups considered to be cults.
Groups established in Russia
prior the religion law's deadline of December 31, 2000, had to
apply for registration regardless of how well or long they had
been established within the various regions of the country. This
resulted in many the legal battle between religious group
leaders, local authorities and the Orthodox Church.
The Salvation Army was forced
out of Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1923. They returned in 1991
and resumed their charitable work in fourteen cities within
western Russia. The managed to get five of their fourteen groups
registered. The greatest blow came when they were rejected by
the Moscow justice department in August of 2000. It seemed that
the negative ruling was based upon the court's misconception
that the Salvation Army was an armed, dissident military
organization. After appeals to two higher courts, the rejection
of the original court was upheld on November 28, 2000.
One of the greatest thorns in
the side of the Russian Orthodox Church is the Church of Rome;
western Catholicism. Patriarch Alexis II has repeatedly denied
requests from the Vatican for a Papal visit to Moscow and
Russia. Alexis feels certain that the Pope and his priests and
bishops have one motive in mind; the systematic conversion of
Russian Orthodox faithful to Catholicism. This distrust goes
back to the Great Schism of 1054 when Christianity finally split
between East and West forming Orthodoxy with its see in
Constantinople (Byzantium, modern day Istanbul, Turkey) and the
Catholic Church of the Vatican in Rome. It is important to
understand that Orthodoxy considers itself to be the one, true,
universal Church mandated by Christ and established by the
Apostles. All other break-away sects, such as Catholicism and,
later, Protestantism, are not part of the true church of Christ.
After the demise of the Soviet
Union, the Russian Orthodox Church worked aggressively to
reclaim is canonical territory. It sees the many outside sects
and religious groups as a direct threat to its position. To
understand this claim, a definition of canonical territory is
needed. Canonical refers to the Church canons or laws that
governing the various levels of the organization. Territory
often refers to a specified geographical area. Canonical
territory defines the region or regions that a particular
religious organization has authority in. For example, Alexis II
is the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia; i.e. the Russian
Orthodox Church in Russia. This contrasts with, say, Pope John
Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church. His canonical territory is
wherever a congregation considered to be in communion with the
Roman Church is located. His canonical territory knows no
geographical or politically defined boundaries. Herein lies the
problem between Moscow and Rome.
Obviously, this is a heated
and emotional issue. For all the good and charitable works that
groups such as the Salvation Army are well-known for, it seems
surprising that anyone could take issue with them, let alone
reject their activities. Religious freedom, like any other
individual freedom, is something countless people throughout the
history of the world have fought and died for. It seems
perfectly reasonable that any human being should have the basic
right to choose his/her own spirituality and group to belong to,
On the other hand, religious
leaders, such as Patriarchs and Popes, are committed and bound
to the ideal that their religion and church is the one true
faith as mandated by Christ. Understanding that, they are
compelled to consider other sects or traditions a threat; not so
much as a threat to their power, but a threat to the innocent
souls who may, in their opinion, fall victim to false prophets,
promises and doctrine. Patriarchs and Popes do, by nature, hold
considerable political influence. This, in theory, is seen as
part of the divine mandate to serve and protect the faith in
question and the ecclesiastical authority of their office.
Salvation Army members,
Baptist missionaries, etc., claim that their motives have
nothing to do with stealing away the Orthodox faithful. Rather,
they see their work as missionary in nature with the focus on
service and Christian compassion. By nature, these activities
result in converts by the thousands. It can be said that the
human being will not be brought to God if he/she is sick,
starving and/or destitute. Missionary efforts address these
mortal needs and, thus, draw countless to their faith tradition.
It stands to reason that the person who is fed, sheltered and
assisted by Church A and not by Church B will choose the first.
It's safe to say that this
argument is far from over; if it ever can be resolved. Russian
Orthodoxy is the primary faith in Russia. A majority of
citizens, who claim a religious affiliation, are Orthodox. The
Church considers itself to have a divinely mandated obligation
to tend to the spiritual well-being of the Russian people. If
so, many would argue that not only does this take away a basic
freedom but denies something else God gave humanity; free will.
For the most recent anaylsis
of the condition of religious freedom in Russia, consider the
U.S. Department of State year 2000 Religious Freedom Report.