Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 8

By Mikhail Zherebyatev

Belgorod has passed a new law on missionary work that harks back to czarist laws. Will the federal authorities be able to quell the confrontation between the Moscow Patriarchy and the provincial bureaucracy?

Missionary work is firmly associated with the spreading of religion. Without missions, the growth of Christianity as a whole and of its individual persuasions is unthinkable. In today’s world, even those religions which historically have not engaged in missions (Judaism, Islam and Hinduism) have now incorporated them in one form or another. However, as it happened, neither the 1990 Russian law on freedom of conscience nor the October 1997 version that replaced it (and which placed many restrictions on the activities of religious organizations of almost all persuasions) referred to “missionary work,” and thus did not define it. At the same time, the 1997 law directly sanctions missionary work, although it uses different terminology, such as “the free spread of religious beliefs,” “choice and change of religion,” and “the equality of different religions under the law.”

However, despite numerous declarations from the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church (the Moscow Patriarchy) to the effect that the church has no aspirations to restore its status as the established church, in the early 1990s the Patriarchy declared the whole of Russia and the former Soviet Union to be its “canonical territory,” that is, exclusively its own territory for missionary work. On several occasions the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has told the secular authorities of its wish to place restrictions on the missionary activity of Protestants from abroad. It has also expressed displeasure that the Roman Catholic Church in Russia decides its internal issues (such as the demarcation of dioceses and the appointment of bishops) without first informing the leaders of the ROC. The Moscow Patriarchy is of the opinion that the Roman Catholic Church, which shares a common canonical basis with the ROC, should act not on the basis of secular laws, but on an acceptance of the primacy of the ROC within Russia’s religious community. In effect, these declarations about “canonical territory” represent the ROC’s aspirations to take relations between church and state in contemporary Russia back to the legal model of the “hierarchy of faiths” which existed in the Russian empire before the fall of czarist power in 1917, and in its strictest form until 1905.

It is true that the Moscow Patriarchy has been careful to reassure the leaders of Russia’s Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and even pagans from national republics such as Tuva, Udmurtia and Marii-El that the church’s declarations do not apply to the followers of these religious tendencies, presumably because neither Muslims nor Buddhists nor Jews nor pagans from the national republics engage in targeted missionary work on the Moscow Patriarchy’s potential pastures. The church’s leaders believe that those whose ancestors numbered among the adherents of the established orthodox church of the Russian empire should belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. The ROC views the religious activity of other Christian faiths as nothing short of the conversion of Orthodox or potential Orthodox Christians to other faiths.

The first regional laws designed to curb the flow of missionaries coming to proselytize from abroad appeared in 1994 in Tula, Kaliningrad and Tyumen Oblasts. Even then human rights activists (particularly State Duma deputies Valery Borshchev and Father Gleb Yakunin, who was subsequently excommunicated from the ROC) pointed out that these laws were at odds with the just-approved Russian constitution, and warned of the dangers of breaking up the single legal space in Russia. The adoption of regional laws restricting the missionary work of foreigners reached a peak in 1995-96. During this period, more than twenty Russian territories published such laws. The requirements placed on missionaries varied from territory to territory, but legislators in Sverdlovsk oblast seemed to go further than their colleagues from other regions. According to the Sverdlovsk law, missionaries could only legally begin their activities when they had submitted to the local justice department a notarized copy of a Russian translation of the holy books of the religion which they intended to preach.

In March 1998 (after a rather harsh federal law had been adopted regulating relations between church and state), the Russian government published a statute, applicable to the whole country, “On the procedure for registering, opening and closing branches of foreign religious organizations in the Russian Federation.” Despite the appearance of this document, a new wave of antimissionary legislation erupted in the regions. According to the most recent data from the Russian Ministry of Justice, about fifty laws and acts designed to regulate the activities of religious organizations have been passed in thirty-three regions. Of these fifty, the Justice Ministry ruled that thirty-five were inconsistent with the Russian constitution. Six laws have been rescinded in the last year. Prior to that, four other territories introduced amendments into their antimissionary legislation at the insistence of the Justice Ministry. Another twenty-two regions have as yet failed to react to the ministry’s demands.

While Moscow is demanding that the regions bring their legislation into line with federal law (including legislation concerning religious issues), Belgorod oblast has contrived to pass a new antimissionary law. The previous 1996 law “On the missionary activity of religious organizations and preachers” regulated relations solely between the authorities and foreign missionaries. The new version, “On missionary work and preaching,” which was published on the initiative of Belgorod Governor Yevgeny Savchenko, no longer limits itself to foreign religious organizations. This law, adopted in January this year, offers a definition of missionary work which is very close to that understood by the Russian Orthodox Church, namely as activity “directly or indirectly designed to disseminate religious dogma and practice among people of other faiths and among non-believers.” It should be said that the Belgorod eparchy (bishopric) enjoys a special place in the structure of the ROC. Its head, archbishop Ioann (Popov), runs the missionary department of the Moscow Patriarchy. He is also rector of the Belgorod orthodox seminary, which also has a missionary bent. Back in 1996, in an interview with Russia’s leading communist newspaper, Sovyetskaya Rossiya, Ioann–at the time a 35-year-old bishop–said that the relations he had established with the secular authorities were reminiscent of the Byzantine model of harmony between secular and religious authorities: They decide all socially significant issues jointly, without interfering in each other’s affairs.

According to the new Belgorod law, missionary work and preaching in the region are only possible in designated prayer houses and the surrounding territory, in apartments with the permission of the residents, and in other places under the same conditions as apply to rallies and demonstrations. It should be pointed out that by no means all faiths in Belgorod oblast have their own prayer houses. Even before the new law was passed, Jehovah’s Witnesses from Stary Oskol, Gubkin and Valuiki–that is, the eastern parts of Belgorod Oblast–were forced to hold large-scale events and congresses in neighboring Voronezh (on the territory of a different region), because for several years now the local authorities have ignored requests from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to assign them some land to build prayer houses, and do not allow them to rent large premises. The new law will simply force some faiths to wind up their activity or go underground.

The law’s sponsor and the Belgorod legislators have unilaterally (which is in principle contrary to Russian legislative norms) made the dissemination of information about religious meetings subject to the federal law on advertising. From now on, when believers from other Russian regions who do not belong to the Moscow Patriarchy arrive in Belgorod Oblast in order to carry out religious activities there, they must register their place of residence in the oblast, presenting a certificate confirming that they belong to this or that religious persuasion, a copy of the invitation from the religious organization receiving them, and a description of their proposed timetable and route for moving around the oblast.

Before this antimissionary law was adopted in Belgorod, not one law of this type in the Russian regions provided for fines. It should be borne in mind that according to the Russian Constitution, the imposition of administrative sanctions (including fines) comes under the joint purview of the Federation and its constituent regions. But in order for a region to implement this constitutional right, strict legal backup is required, in the form of a treaty. A treaty between Moscow and a region is usually a standard statement of intentions; specific clauses are laid down in separate appendices. As yet, all such appendices signed by Moscow and the regions concern purely economic issues. For this reason there is an administrative code which applies throughout Russia.

According to the Belgorod law, the police and the municipal authorities have the right to impose fines of between 50 and 100 of minimum monthly wages. Furthermore, the law envisages that the proceeds be divided 60-40 percent between the municipal and oblast budgets respectively. It thus effectively encourages the local authorities to seek out overt and covert missionaries. Significantly, the Belgorod lawmakers’ project soon met with the approval of the authorities in another territory–Kabardino-Balkaria. A new law here on religious extremism (which is interpreted very broadly) also provides for fines.

On May 15 of this year, the Belgorod Oblast department of the Ministry of Justice decided to hold a symposium, open to the press and representatives of various faiths, on the question of observing the federal law on freedom of conscience and the new oblast law on missionary work. The authorities probably wanted the protestants who had been invited to make voluntary declarations of loyalty to the new antimissionary law, in exchange for which the authorities would officially declare them as loyal to the state. (An official from the justice department stated that none of the religious organizations officially registered in Belgorod Oblast are engaged in any illegal activity.) The Moscow Patriarchy’s bishop did not attend the meeting. But the protestants present did not hold their tongues, and told everyone what they thought of the law, vowing to do all they could within the law to revoke it.

Two weeks later at a meeting of the presidential council on cooperation with religious organizations (which has consultative powers), the subject of regional laws on missionary work came up once again. Deputy Justice Minister Yevgeny Sidorenko told those present that missionary activity cannot on principle be subject to legal regulation. Yuvenaly (Poyarkov), Metropolitan of Krutitsky and Kolomensky, who is the nominal number two in the Moscow Patriarchy, disagreed with him. The Metropolitan suggested inviting to the next meeting representatives from those regions which had adopted antimissionary laws, so that everyone could hear their arguments.

Mikhail Zherebyatev is a specialist with the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research in Moscow.