Religious Freedom as a Condition for Russia's Revival in the 21st Century

By
Erin Trouth Hofmann

"Religion may be a factor contributing to the revival of Russia, but at the same time it can also be a factor contributing to the disintegration of the Russian state," according to Anatoly Krasikov, Director, Center of Social and Religious Studies, Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Kennan Institute. At a 6 April 2004 Kennan Institute seminar, Krasikov argued that without a culture of religious freedom and tolerance, the Russian Federation will not survive. "The religious factor alone would not be enough, but there are lots of other factors, and they exist simultaneously and interact with each other," he said.

Krasikov noted that there are many threats to religious freedom in Russia today, but "in spite of all the drawbacks…for the past ten or fifteen years Russia has enjoyed religious freedom to a degree it never had at any point in its history." Popular interest in religion has grown tremendously since the end of the Soviet period. According to Krasikov, survey data demonstrate that the Russian Orthodox Church has become the second most trusted institution in the country after the president. Yet while the Church is playing an increasingly visible role in public life, he argued, Orthodoxy as a religion is losing its historical position of dominance. Orthodox parishes account for the majority of registered religious organizations in only two of Russia's seven federal districts. They constitute a plurality in four districts, and take second place to Protestant groups in the Far Eastern district. He noted that the numbers of both Protestant and Muslim believers are increasing more rapidly than the number of Orthodox believers.

Increasing religious pluralism has also coincided with increasing intolerance. In Krasikov's view, "many people were not ready for religious freedom." He explained that many of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church are demanding legal restrictions on the freedom of non-Orthodox religious groups and are trying to establish a special relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state. The "reactionary clergy" have found allies among politicians who "seek to exploit the Church for their own ambitions and their own objectives," he said. For example, in 1997, the Russian government, supported by the Orthodox Church, passed a law that significantly limited the legal rights of "non-native" religious groups in the country. In addition, Krasikov recounted the difficulty that many religious groups have encountered in obtaining visas for missionaries, teachers, or other church members from abroad.

Krasikov noted that Orthodox clergy are particularly upset about the activities of Catholics and Protestants in Russia, and a number of senior Church leaders have spoken out very aggressively against Western Christianity. However, he fears that conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims is also increasingly likely. Krasikov argued that although "there is no tradition of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in Russia," Muslims today feel threatened by the rise of state-sponsored Orthodoxy. He noted that the Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia has protested plans to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian conquest of Kazan organized jointly by the Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Defense.

Today, many people debate whether Russia can be considered a religiously free country, according to Krasikov, because the current religious situation is ambiguous and "abounds with paradoxes." He noted that despite its restrictive content, the 1997 Law on Religion has had a limited impact on most religious organizations. After it was passed, several groups successfully challenged the law in court, resulting in restrictions the law's enforcement that allowed the majority of religious groups to retain their legal rights. "Prior to the passage of the 1997 law, Russia had 16,000 religious organizations registered with the state, today, there are 22,000," he added.

Krasikov also sees President Vladimir Putin's religious policies as ambiguous. Putin regularly speaks about the need for tolerance and the equality of all Russian citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity, but he appears to favor the Orthodox Church. As an example, Krasikov noted that a senior member of Putin's administration gave an interview that was published in the official parliamentary newspaper under the title "Our Ideology is Russian Orthodoxy."

For the present, Krasikov believes that Russia still allows sufficient freedom to prevent religious conflict. "As long as Russia keeps the current Constitution, as long as Russia is a member in good standing of the international community and recognizes the international documents that it has signed, I don't think there is much to worry about," he said. However, he warned that there are people within the Orthodox Church and the political elite who want to take away freedom of religion, with potentially dangerous consequences. "The problem," he argued, "is that our country has always been and remains a country of intolerance, including religious intolerance…Those of us who care about the cause of freedom will have to have patience and be ready to keep fighting for a long time."

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