The freedom of religion or belief is comprised of many freedoms, including those of conscience, speech, assembly, and association, said Catherine Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. At a 15 June 2010 Kennan Institute talk, Cosman discussed the role of religion as one way to participate in civil society, and the various laws regulating religious groups and practice in Russia.

In Russia, religion has also become especially important as a vehicle for personal meaning after decades of the state-sponsored atheism of the Soviet Union. "Freedom of religion allows individuals to conform to or dissent from society at large," said Cosman, adding that religious communities also have the potential to involve the largest number of people, since most other forms of civil society have been quashed by the Russian government.

While the Russian law on freedom of religion holds all religions to be constitutionally equal, the prelude to the law, which lacks legal status, elevates four religions to "traditional" status: Russian Orthodox, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Moreover, each "traditional" religion has officially favored institutions, most notably the Moscow Patriarchate for Russian Orthodoxy or the official Muftiates for Islam.

The Russian Orthodox church is de facto most favored by the state, and receives the bulk of federal funds allocated for religious groups. Indeed, a draft law is currently being considered that would transfer religious property to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and icons from public museums. Cosman stated that this would make the Patriarchate one of Russia's main property holders.

The 1997 Russian religion law also defines three categories of religious communities: unregistered groups, which are not allowed to hold property, open bank accounts, or publish literature; local organizations, which need to have existed for more than 15 years to be eligible for registration; and centralized organizations comprised of local organizations, which need to reregister annually to maintain their legal status. The 15-year registration requirement for religious communities has been deemed by the European Court of Human Rights as a human rights violation.

In 2002, a law on extremist literature was passed, and in 2007 an official list of banned literature was initiated with 14 titles. As of 2010 the list has 550 titles, including Jehovah's Witnesses literature. Islamic materials, such as the writings of Turkish theologian Said Nursi comprise the majority of the theological titles, and mass distribution of any listed literature can result in criminal prosecution. For example, literature that expresses the opinion that one religion is superior to all others can be considered extremist, even though such views are an inherent aspect of almost all religions. More generally, the law equates the reading or writing of allegedly extremist views with acting on extremist ideas by committing criminal acts. Cosman noted that this law did not require involvement in acts of violence.

The increasingly broad application of the extremism law also complicates the relationship between the Russian government and many members of the Muslim community. A post-Soviet revival of Islam has occurred simultaneously with violence in Chechnya which has spread to other parts of the North Caucasus. While the European Court for Human Rights has issued 132 rulings against Chechnya for various violations against the civilian population, these conflicts have also bred the terrorists who committed atrocities in a school building in Beslan and the recent Moscow subway bombings. Russian official policies in the North Caucuses, particularly those of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, include numerous gross human rights violations: Muslims without proven connections to Islamic militants have been killed and/or disappeared from their homes, and Russian soldiers have tortured Muslims to extract confessions.

A weak judicial system and rule of law, Kremlin authoritarianism, and the ongoing official influence of chauvinist groups, are major underlying causes of the deteriorating human rights situation in the Russian Federation, according to Cosman.

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute



  • Catherine Cosman

    Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom