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RELIGION IN RUSSIA (about.com)

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 proselytism.

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, if any.

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.