Holy Russia quashes alien worship

New laws restrict rights as Orthodox Church struggles against incursions by rivals

In 1990, towards the end of decades of Soviet repression, Russia adopted a law guaranteeing religious freedom. The days of official harassment and KGB meddling were over. The population could worship whomsoever or whatsoever it pleased. Or so it seemed.

Six years on, that right is being eroded. Free worship is under attack again, not this time by a bullying central party but by Russia's scores of far-flung regional governments, where democratic reforms have yet to supplant Communist-era attitudes and where many of the old apparatchiks remain in power.

A tranche of regional laws is gradually being introduced restricting the rights of minority churches, in an effort to protect the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely linked to the state, from outside competition. Provincial government posts are being created to allow officials to keep an eye on religious activity.

Each separate development pales by comparison to the wild excesses of the Communist Party or Stalin during Soviet times, when thousands of churches were shut and distributing Bibles could land you in a labour camp. But, taken together, they add up to a disturbing picture.

The issue has been brought to light by the Keston Institute, a respected independent research centre based in Oxford, which was in the forefront of the campaign against religious repression under Soviet rule. Research by its Moscow representative, Lawrence Uzzell, estimates that a quarter of Russia's 89 regions and republics have adopted measures that restrict the right to freedom of worship.

In some regions, local officials have taken powers which allow them to regulate foreign and domestic clergy and even to impose a ban if they disapprove of their activities. These include laws stating that missionaries must have an annual certificate of accreditation.

In other cases, local authorities, which still own most large civic buildings in provincial Russia, can now legally forbid religious groups from renting their properties for church services. There are laws denying registration to churches which the authorities decide are committing such vague offences as "promoting disobedience to state authorities" or "encouraging citizens to refuse to carry out their civic or family obligations".

Such laws not only contradict the 1990 law, they are also flagrantly ignore the Russian constitution, adopted three years ago, which guarantees universal religious freedom. "The rapid spread of such measures, and the courts' failure to curb them, suggests that Russia is not even trying to become a state governed by law," Mr Uzzell said.

Despite widespread secrecy among regional governments - some of which refuse even to reveal the text of their legislation - he has assembled specific examples. In Sverdlovsk, individuals or organisations who provide meeting places for missionary activities are required to tell the local authorities. In Tver, an executive order has been issued denying accreditation to "structural sub-units of foreign religious organisations located outside the border of the Russian Federation" - a catch-all clause that could include those with deep roots in Russia, such as Catholicism.

So why is it happening? One explanation is a fear of cults, which have burgeoned since the fall of the Soviet Union. But it has more to do with the reflex habit of Soviet-era apparatchiks to regulate religion in the interests of the state. That, and the nationalist-leaning Orthodox Church's anxiety to maintain its position in a country where there are now a million non-Orthodox believers.

"The church is paranoid about foreigners," Mr Uzzell said. "The spiritual expansion of the West is seen as part and parcel of its political and economic expansion. Just as in Soviet times, they see McDonald's executives, Baptist missionaries and western diplomats as part of one monolithic structure."

The Orthodox Church is strongly rumoured to be attempting to push legislation through parliament recognising only four official religions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss