LIMITING RELIGION IN RUSSIA
September 29, 1997
Hare Krishnas and other religious groups are protesting a new law that cracks down on religious freedom in Russia. Vice President Gore denounced the measure, but acknowledged that his comments made little impact on Russian lawmakers. Two experts discuss how the new law will affect the religious life of all Russians.
PHIL PONCE: The law signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin last Friday recognizes the Russian Orthodox Church for a special historic role in Russia and Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, as traditional faiths. But the law divides all religious groups into two categories: those that can prove they have been active in Russia for 15 years or more received full legal rights. Those groups that cannot prove they've been acting 15 years must register with local authorities and face a variety of government restrictions. Lawrence McDonnell of Independent Television News filed this report when the law was passed.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
May 6, 1997
Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with David Hoffman, Moscow Correspondent for The Washington Post.
November 25, 1996:
Online Forum: NewsHour Correspondent Simon Marks on Russia's future.
July 4, 1996:
A Newsmaker interview with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
July 3, 1996:
A discussion on Yeltsin's second term as President.
July 2, 1996:
A background report on the Russian elections.
June 13, 1996:
David Gergen speaks with Eleanor Randolph, author of Waking the Tempests: Ordinary Life in the New Russia.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Religion.
Russian Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America
The government moves to protect the Russian Orthodox Church.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: Outside the parliament building in Moscow Hare Krishnas out-sung the followers of other faiths who, like them, gathered to protest against the lawmakers. They were effectively all singing with one voice, demonstrating against a new religious law that they say will restrict their freedom and violates the Russian constitution. They were given short shrift by extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who told them to pack their bags. And inside the Duma they got the same treatment. The law was passed almost unanimously. Today the head of the committee that drafted the bill signed it off. He said the country needed protecting.
VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV, Committee on Religious Affairs: (speaking through interpreter) In the last decade the country has been flooded with new religions, pseudo religions, and totalitarian sects, and this law will limit the expansion of this sort of religion. LAWRENCE McDONNELL: U.S. Vice President Al Gore, in Moscow for talks with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, said the law was discriminatory that acknowledged his objections were all but ignored. The call for restrictions on religious freedom came about when the Orthodox Church realized it was losing young followers to groups like Aum Shin Rikyo, the cult held responsible for the gas attack on the Japanese underground. But traditional religions say they too will lose out under the new legislation. Roman Catholics are worried because the operation of any church not registered under Soviet law could be curtailed. At the Church St. Louis Father Gei should be where the KGB once installed a camera to monitor the comings and goings of worshipers in the dark days of religious repression. He thought those days were over. Now, he's not so sure.
FATHER ANATOLY GEI, Church of St. Louis: (speaking through interpreter) We hoped that with democracy would come full religious freedom. And, to start with, that's what happened. People could worship without fear of persecution. Now, the situation has taken a turn for the worse.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: The Orthodox Church has enjoyed a new prominence in post Soviet Russia and lobbied hard for a new law, encouraged by Boris Yeltsin's newfound faith, now they stand accused of religious nationalism.
Trying to bring stability to an unstable country.
PHIL PONCE: Joining us now are Lauren Homer, and international lawyer who specializes in religious liberties and human rights issues in the former Soviet Republics and Father Leonid Kishkovsky, an orthodox priest and the ecumenical officer of the Orthodox Church in America, which is independent of but in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Lauren Homer, if I may go to you first, what, in your opinion, is the motivation behind this law? Why was it passed?
LAUREN HOMER, International Lawyer: Well, I think it's an attempt by the Russian government and by the Moscow patriarchate of the Orthodox Church to try to keep people from thinking for themselves in Russia.
PHIL PONCE: Excuse me, the official you alluded to, he is, or that person, the role is--
LAUREN HOMER: The Moscow patriarchate is the official organization of the Russian Orthodox Church. It's the largest of a number of Russian Orthodox religious organizations in Russia.
PHIL PONCE: And do you see them as having been mutually involved in promoting this bill?
LAUREN HOMER: They were very much involved. And I think they would acknowledge their participation in trying to shut down activities of religious organizations that have started to be organized in Russia since the Brezhnev era and certainly since the beginning of perestroika in the early 1990's.
PHIL PONCE: Would you say it's--would you say it's specifically aimed at protecting membership in the Russian Orthodox Church?
LAUREN HOMER: Well, it's much broader in its scope than that. It will regulate all religious organizations in Russia in a much more extreme way than has been the case since 1990.
PHIL PONCE: Father Kishkovsky, why do you think this law was passed?
LEONID KISHKOVSKY, Orthodox Church in America: There is general support in Russian society for this legislation I have found in recent visits to Moscow. There's broad support in this society I suppose because it's a reaction of anxiety to the in-rush of new religious groups that did occur in the former Soviet Union after its collapse. And I think it's very important to remember that less than 10 years ago Russia and the other parts of the Soviet Union were closed totalitarian societies and the Russia freedom, which we all welcome and certainly the Russians welcome, brought with it also a very massive and aggressive missionary effort from North America, Western Europe, and Asia, and that very high profile and well-financed missionary effort by groups coming from outside certainly created some social tensions. And I think that they are understandable tensions; they are tensions that would exist in our own American society should there be such a massive in-rush of missionary activity coming at a weak moment in national history when people are disoriented, anxious about the future, hopeful for freedom, but also not certain how to live in free circumstances. And we have to remember that Russia entered this last period with no tradition or habit or custom of living in a free society. All of this is entirely new and the newness of it has created I think the political moment where a certain reaction has set in against this unlimited religious freedom.
PHIL PONCE: Once upon a time, not that long ago, there was a perception in the West that religion and Russia were not two words that necessarily went together, but are you saying there is--there is a strong interest, resurgent interest in--
After Communism: Russians flock to the Orthodox Church.
LEONID KISHKOVSKY: Yes. Under the Communists, religions, all of them, and certainly the Russian Orthodox Church, were the object of persecution and genocide, and the plan of the Communist Party was to eliminate religious life in the Soviet Union.
PHIL PONCE: Now, though, how many adherents does the Russian Orthodox Church have in Russia percentage-wise?
LEONID KISHKOVSKY: Percentage-wise I'm told that something like 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. That doesn't mean that all of them or most of them are religiously observant, but it does mean that they have a cultural historical connection to the Russian Orthodox tradition. Many of them are rediscovering that as a religious belief as well.
PHIL PONCE: Lauren Homer, who is this going to hurt?
LAUREN HOMER: Well, it's going to hurt all Russian churches. Unfortunately, 15 years ago in the Brezhnev era many Russian churches were not allowed to register. That includes many Baptist churches, Pentecostal and--
PHIL PONCE: Excuse me. When you say all Russian churches, are you including the Russian Orthodox Church? I take it you're not.
LAUREN HOMER: Well, I would think that it would also hurt the Orthodox Church because it is going to be--along with all the other churches--subject to much more state regulation. And its believers are going to have less freedom.
PHIL PONCE: One has gotten the impression that the aim of this--that the aim of this law might have been these miscellaneous sects. Will it also hurt established main--so-called main line religions?
LAUREN HOMER: Yes, it will. And certainly the activities of the sects, and I agree with Father Kishkovsky, their very public missionary activity has had a negative impact, and that has definitely been the excuse for passage of this law.
All religions will be restricted.
PHIL PONCE: Specifically, how is it going to hurt religious activity? What will religions be not allowed to do on a daily basis?
LAUREN HOMER: Well, it's going to reduce the number of religious organizations that have what we might call full legal rights: They can set up seminaries; have educational programs; get clergy exemptions and produce and distribute religious literature. That's going to be limited to groups that have been--that existed in Russia for more than 15 years. So, for instance, if you're a Baptist group and you wanted to create your own church, you can't have any of those rights. If you're not registered now, you won't be able to get them until you've been active for 15 years. If you are registered now, you can get very limited rights but not the ones that I just mentioned.
PHIL PONCE: And as far as--say a Roman Catholic parish wants to bring in a priest from overseas to help with proselytizing, whatever, would that kind of activity conceivably be affected as well?
LAUREN HOMER: Well, very much so, and I think that is one of the--that's one of the open questions Father Kishkovsky and I both know that the Russian government is claiming that they're going to interpret the law in a way that's rather different from the way that it's written. But right now only the organizations that existed in the Soviet period will be allowed to invite foreign visitors. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church they only had two congregations in all of Russia at that time, and so there may be some substantial problems for them both with bringing in foreign priests and most priests in Russia actually even in the Orthodox Church--
PHIL PONCE: That's because there's a three-congregation sort of base line.
LAUREN HOMER: That's right.
PHIL PONCE: And so even Roman Catholicism can be affected. How do you respond to this as a clergy person to seeing this kind of law passed?
What can the United States do?
LEONID KISHKOVSKY: Well, as an American Orthodox I'm very concerned about negative results that may well result, that may well occur because of this legislation. It depends on how it is implemented certainly but the intent of the legislation is to limit and to restrict. But, again, I think I must return to the point about the previous period under a rather chaotic freedom. Let me give you one illustration. Several years ago the Unification Church, which we all know in the United States, in Russia reached an agreement, signed a kind of contract with the Russian federation's Ministry of Education and through that contract had direct access into the public schools of Russia providing a curriculum on moral values. Now, understandably, that created a real unhappiness for the Russian Orthodox Church and I would guess for Baptists and for Catholics in Russia as well. And it's that sort of un--I don't like the word "regulation," but it is this--this kind of chaotic reality of how religion entered into the public arena that has produced what I think is a very unfortunate reaction. And I am hoping that through engagement with the Russian government and with Russian religious communities we in America may assist them, accompany them on the way towards religious liberty which is not chaotic, which is somehow built on law, on custom, on tradition of democracy and freedom.
PHIL PONCE: Is there a realistic expectation on the part of the religious in this country that they can have that kind of an influence in Russia?
LEONID KISHKOVSKY: I believe we can. For example, it seems to me that the conversations of Vice President Gore with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin just about a week ago were conversations that tried to build a certain mechanism, a possibility of further consultation. I was at a conference in the Hague about 10 days ago--a small group, about half from Russia, half from Western Europe and the U.S.--and we were meeting in order to discuss the implications of the law. And the last day of the meeting President Yeltsin's aide on these matters specially came to the Hague to speak with us. And he was attempting to persuade us that by working together it is possible to provide benign mechanisms that are inclusive rather than draconian and exclusive for the future of religious life and liberty in Russia.
PHIL PONCE: Father Kishkovsky, Lauren Homer, I thank you both.
LAUREN HOMER: Thank you.