Religious Liberty for Some, Not All, in Russia

Scott Hogenson | Executive Editor | Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Religious Liberty for Some, Not All, in Russia

(Editor's Note: The author is traveling in and reporting from Russia as part of an American Journalists Delegation at the invitation of the Russia Information Agency.)

Kazan, Tatarstan (CNSNews.com) - The president of Tatarstan, a republic located in the central part of the Russian Federation, Friday distanced himself from the question of allowing certain "non-traditional" churches to register in the republic.

President Mintimer Shaimiev suggested the more prevalent Russian Orthodox and Muslim churches may be playing a part in the process.

While Russian Orthodox, Muslim and most other denominations practice in Tatarstan with relative ease, the Mormon Church is still having problems registering with the government in Tatarstan and is challenging the government's refusal.

"Religion is separated from the state, but not from the public, not from the people, not from the society," Shaimiev said through an interpreter. "We have to explain to the people what is good and what is bad, and here, the (Russian Orthodox) patriarch and the Muslim clergy - they're very cautious with the feelings of the believers."

A U.S. State Department human rights report released March 31 noted that Mormons had successfully registered in 38 places around Russia, but the church has had problems in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, and a few others cities in the Russian Federation.

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The Mormon Church has filed suit challenging what the State Department calls the "repeated refusals of the authorities to register the church."

Religious registration carries with it much greater latitude in terms of how a church may operate, and non-registered churches may be "liquidated" by the government, meaning they can lose their juridical status. Most of the churches that are not registered are considered "non-traditional" by Russian authorities.

"We are doing everything in order to heed the balance -- the position -- not to harm or not to bring damage to any other religion," Shaimiev said.

The U.S. State Department estimates that roughly 90 percent of church groups seeking registration in the Russian Federation have successfully complied with the controversial 1997 "Law on Religion."

However, some lesser known churches have had difficulty, including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, the Salvation Army, Scientologists, and certain Muslim sects regarded as more extreme practitioners of Islam.

"If there is some kind of, maybe, partisan approach or negative approach, mostly it comes from this patriarchy" of the Russian Orthodox Church, said Shaimiev. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest and strongest in the Russian Federation, and some say it is too closely linked with the government.

In another State Department report from October 2001, it was noted that, "over the last two years there have been indications of a growing convergence between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state."

The 2001 report noted the relationship appeared to give the Russian Orthodox Church a "preferred position" among government offices and administrators, and that the church has "entered into a number of agreements on such matters as guidelines for public education, religious training for government employees and military personnel, and, in certain cases, law enforcement and customs decisions."

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Religious liberty broadened, but not yet universal

While the Mormon and a few other faiths have had some difficulty exercising their religion in Tatarstan and elsewhere in the Russian Federation, others have not only practiced unimpeded by the government, but also are the recipients of efforts to revive and extend religious liberties in the former Soviet Union.

"We are trying, first of all, to return all of these religious buildings, which were used in a not-religious way, to the people -- to the parishioners, to the believers," Shaimiev said.

President Shaimiev spoke of his administration's efforts to return to local Jews a synagogue which had been taken out of church hands during the Soviet era; and within a few hundred feet of Shaimiev's office inside the Kazan Kremlin's walls is a major renovation of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, built in the 16th century but converted to an archive during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's regime.

Thousands of square feet of centuries-old Orthodox icons and paintings had been white-washed by the communists, and today, Shaimiev's administration is expending considerable money and effort to preserve and restore the cathedral.

There has also been the establishment of a Muslim university to permit the training of Muslim clerics without worries about what Shaimiev called "wahhabism," which is considered by many to be an extreme practice of Islam that some say is linked to terrorism in Chechnya.

According to Shaimiev, young people seeking to enter the Muslim clergy had to leave Tatarstan for studies abroad, resulting in some returning to espouse a more extreme brand of Islam.

"The Islamic tradition of Tatarstan is more enlightened," Shaimiev said. "Here, the Orthodox and the Muslims, they live side-by-side. So the coexistence of these two religions, it gives the chance not to go to extremes."