Toleration but not Freedom of Religion

Russian Duma discusses the law on religion and freedom of conscience


M o s c o w – Russia`s controversial „Law on the Freedom of Conscience“ was honoured with a round of discussions in the Duma on the occasion of its 10th birthday, 15 June. Though one speaker appealed for a total union of Orthodoxy and the state, Sergei Ryahovski, Bischof of the charismatic “United Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith” called for adding the word “Protestant” to the law`s preamble. In conversations afterward, the also-present Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko from the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists explained: “The preamble only speaks of the Russian Orthodox Church ‘and other Christian organisations’. That means nothing to many local officials who are not aware of the fact that Protestants are also Christians.”


In his address at the Duma, Andrei Sibintsov from the Russian Federation’s Office for Religious Affairs reported on an ongoing undermining of this legisation and called for renewed efforts to enforce government neutrality on questions of religious faith. Yet, as he noted, the constant political privilege being extended to Orthodoxy`s Moscow Patriarchy makes this law irrelevant. Not least of all, public schools in Muslim-ruled provinces (Tatarstan for ex.) are injecting their pupils with heavy dosages of Islamic dogma.


Particularly troublesome for evangelicals in this law on freedom of conscience from 1997 was the stipulation that only faith communities who had already existed in Russia for 15 years (from 1982) were to be granted state registration. According to Sibintsov, this ruling has been constantly circumvened by evangelical groups, among others. Those able to open a central, national office with government sanction can then easily register house communities elsewhere. Yet both the Moscow Patriarchy and the Roman-Catholic Church have welcomed the time clause hoping that it will help keep splinter groups from appearing within their own ranks.


Andrei Sibintsov also appealed for legislation to guarantee the separation between church denominations and business. Business enterprises such as the gold and silver trade are constantly squeezing under the roof of the Orthodox church in hopes of participating in its freedom from taxation. This is a privilege enjoyed only by the Moscow Patriarchy – in 2008 many thousands of acres of long-lost farmland are to be given back to it.


On the evening, of 15 June, Rev. Vlasenko, who serves as Director of the Baptist Department for External Church Relations, participated in the Orthodox reception marking the 17th anniversary of Alexei II’s crowning. Though Russian Lutherans had also been invited, the Baptist pastor was apparently the sole Russian Protestant in the crowd of 500 invited guests. Vlasenko reports that the elites of both government and business were present; for him even visually the merging of official Orthodoxy with government and business was readily apparent.


Pastor Vlasenko regards changes in the legislation of 1997 as unlikely. “This law may be full of holes, but it looks very durable. We have no real religious freedom, but that is not a problem for most of this country`s movers and shakers.” All that can probably be hoped for is a continuing, hesitant toleration of Protestants by the national majority.


The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Russia’s largest Protestant denomination, has 78.000 baptised members worshiping in 1.930 local congregations and groups. Protestants make up less than 1% of Russia`s population.


Dr. William Yoder

Department for External Church Relations, RUECB

Moscow, 18 June 2007


A press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-18, 532 words.