April 25, 2000
volume 11, no. 81
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NEWS & VIEWS     Acknowledgments
Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

Revelations of Keston Institute Report

    LONDON, APR 23 (ZENIT.org).- Geraldine Fagan and Lawrence Uzzell of England's Keston Institute have written a very painstaking report on religious freedom and Church-State relations in President-elect Vladimir Putin's Russia.

    According to the study, in Church-State relations, as in other areas, observers report mixed signals from the new administration. Putin himself is spending the period leading up to his official inauguration in May by visiting the Russian armed forces and presiding at prize-giving ceremonies, rather than discussing policy initiatives.

A Question of Image

    As regards religious freedom, the concrete steps Putin has taken so far point to entirely different directions. In March, the mainstream media gave comparatively wide coverage to Putin's signing of the March law extending the deadline for re-registration of religious organizations. This suggests a conscious attempt to appear in favor of religious freedom. However, this is largely a routine amendment, very much supported by the Moscow Patriarchy and the old-line Muslim spiritual directorates. It most certainly is not a sign of tolerance towards religious minorities

    It is important to recall that Russia's most notorious violations of religious freedom have little to do with such legalistic questions. For example, the native Protestant congregations (and, increasingly, religious bodies connected with foreign churches) that are refused the right to rent public halls for their worship, often have full legal registration, and all the rights that ostensibly flow therefrom.

Greater Restrictions of Foreign Missionaries?

    The elements of religious policy buried in the lengthy decree on a new national security policy signed by Putin on January 10, received almost no media coverage, even though they may be more representative of the new administration's future policy. The now superseded December 1997 document on national security policy had emphasized the "important role of the Russian Orthodox Church" in preserving spiritual values. The new text omits all reference to the Russian Church, stipulating that the "spiritual and moral education of the population" should be regulated by State policy. The 1997 text saw the main threat in the "destructive role of various types of religious sects." The new text stresses "the negative influence of foreign missionaries."

    This new national security policy could result in increased restrictions on Western Christian missionaries, especially those from the United States. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise extent to which such missionaries are being pressured to scale down their activity or leave Russia. Some maintain that they do not encounter difficulties, especially if they keep a low profile. Those who do encounter problems, are often very reluctant to report them to the U.S. Embassy or speak candidly to reporters for fear of repercussions on their congregations.

    However, judging by known cases, which at present are confidential, it appears that the federal intelligence service (FSB) pays special attention to such missionaries and regards missionary activity as being a particularly effective cover for the CIA. Such suspicions are exacerbated when missionaries try to enter Russia with visas stating non-religious purposes, as many increasingly do, the Keston report reveals.

    It is quite likely that the local FSB departments will interpret the religious aspects of the new security policy as a signal to step up intimidation. Given the fact that it is usually possible to do this without the missionaries making public complaints, the methods used to restrict missionary activity will thus continue to be intimidation and attempts to prosecute under criminal law (e.g. for non-payment of taxes, smuggling foreign currency in or out of the country, etc.)

Religious Liberty and State Centralization

    One of Putin's main concerns at present is to consolidate centralized power in Moscow and weaken the provinces; his apparent stance in favor of religious freedom must be seen in this light. By enforcing some democratic principles, he is able to subdue regional governors opposed to such principles.

    Religious freedom is a convenient principle to support, since, unlike freedom of speech, it is of immediate concern to a far smaller number of people and is easier to control. As long as Putin purports to uphold religious freedom, it is likely that there will be attempts to restrict it in provinces where the administration is eager to maintain a large degree of autonomy from Moscow, or is procommunist, or is under strong pressure from an Orthodox bishop who is intolerant of other confessions (or is a combination of all these).

    Incidents reflecting this phenomenon have already taken place. In reaction to the provincial governments' efforts to preserve the degree of centralization, which they achieved during the 1990s, Putin will push for more centralized structures in all areas of life, almost certainly including religion. The new administration will probably create some kind of structure along the lines of the Council of Religious Affairs, which was barred by law from 1990 to 1997, in order to make local officials answerable to Moscow and not to local mayors and governors, the study explains. Relations with the Orthodox Church     Likewise, the report points out that after the initial, largely symbolic portrayal of a close relationship between Putin and Patriarch Aleksi in early January, the new administration is now maintaining a greater distance from the Moscow Patriarchy. This seems likely to continue.

    At present Putin is cultivating the image of a lukewarm Orthodox believer and no longer making public statements supporting Russia's "traditional" confessions in the same way as, for example, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. A close alliance with the Moscow Patriarchy is now politically risky due to continued revelations about the Church's illicit trading activities and the increasingly public close relationship between the Patriarch and the shady figure of Gulya Sotnikova. Although Putin receives unstinting support from the Moscow Patriarchy for the war in Chechnya, Patriarch Alexy recently upbraided the West for double standards in its criticism of the Chechen war, the Patriarchy appears to have received little in return other than a presidential guard for Alexy.

The Hour of Truth

    At some point, Putin's claim to uphold democratic principles is going to be difficult to reconcile with his primary image as promoter of a powerful state, which is what allowed him to attract such a large share of the communist vote. When it becomes impossible to maintain this balance the Kremlin will probably switch to a nationalist, pseudo-Orthodox model more in keeping with Putin's primary, populist image.

    One likely moment for this switch to take place will be after the new re-registration deadline at the end of 2000. The dramatic, albeit isolated, case of the move to liquidate 13 religious organizations in the Voronezh region of central Russia may be a foretaste of what will happen in 2001, when all local justice departments will be legally obliged to do what the one in Voronezh chose to do (it disregarded the express warning of the Ministry of Justice on the postponement of the time available for re-registration).

    The same scenario is likely to be played out in every region of Russia at the end of the year 2000 and the beginning of 2001. The question is whether the Putin administration will allow this, or introduce a further change in the law to prevent it. This in turn depends upon how long Putin chooses to continue cultivating an image of favoring religious freedom, the Keston report concludes. ZE00042001


April 25, 2000
volume 11, no. 81

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