Elizabeth A. Clark
Associate Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies
As of July 20th of 2016, ordinary Russian citizens and foreigners living in Russia face enormous fines for sharing their beliefs, even if they do so in their own homes. This represents a new level of repression of free speech and civil society in post-Soviet Russia. As tracked by the Pew Research Center, government restrictions on religion in Russia have been on the increase in recent years, propelling Russia into the top bracket of religious freedom violators. Now, by imposing restrictions on what religious individuals may say, even in the confines of their own homes, Russia joins the ranks of countries like Vietnam, which similarly bans the sharing of religious beliefs outside of religious facilities. As Mikhail Odintsov, who until recently was responsible for the protection of religious rights in the Russian Federal Ombudsman’s office, noted: “In religious policy, we are drawing close to the norms of the Soviet Union.”
The July legislation (known colloquially as the “Yarovaya law,” after one of its sponsors, Irina Yarovaya) was styled as a series of amendments to the anti-extremism law. The religion provisions were introduced five days before the second reading and adopted without public input, despite widespread public protest. Although labeled as an anti-extremism law, it can be best understood as part of the ongoing crackdown on civil society in Russia. Recent years have seen increasingly restrictive amendments to Russia’s non-profit organizations and religion laws, as well as pretextual and extra-legal attempts to shut down minority religious organizations, NGOs, and journalists critical of the government. Under current extremism laws, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have already had members prosecuted, religious material banned and held at the border, and have been threatened with liquidation. While violence from religious extremists and others is a real concern in Russia, as elsewhere, “extremism” has been a handy label for targeting unpopular groups that pose no threat of violence to the state, such as Russian Orthodox Old Believers and followers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi.
The increasing repression of civil society combines with widespread fears of predatory foreign religions to make a toxic mix. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, some in Russia have expressed concern about the perception of well-funded foreigners coming in to build their congregations at the expense of Russian Orthodoxy, weakened by the Soviet system. After 70 years of religious persecution and religions being co-opted by the state, this is perhaps understandable. Protecting Russian Orthodoxy, however, has come to be perceived as being aligned with national strategic interests. In 2000, a Russian federal policy statement on national security stated that “[e]nsuring the national security of the Russian Federation also includes the protection of its . . . spiritual and moral heritage” and “includes opposing the negative influence of foreign religious organizations and missionaries.”
The Yarovaya law stretches the concept of extremism and conflates it with “national security” protections from proselyting. It is extensive–banning most forms of missionary activity, including the sharing of beliefs in private residences. Missionary activity, defined as “activity of a religious association aimed at disseminating information about its doctrine [including online information sharing] among individuals who are not participants,” can only now be carried out by individuals carrying authorization from their religious association and proof of their organization’s registration. Authorized representatives may only engage in missionary activities on church property, and the religious activity must be in the region that has registered the religious organization or group. Proselyting in residential areas is specifically forbidden, as are attempts to circumvent the law by converting residential premises to non-residential ones for religious use. Individuals who violate the law are subject to fines from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles (up to six weeks’ worth of an average salary, or US $780). Organizations are liable for violations of their members and can be fined from 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles and liquidated. Foreign missionaries are also restricted: they can only be invited into the country by a religious organization, with whom they must have a contract, and representative offices of foreign religious organizations (foreign religions that have not obtained local or national registration) cannot engage in missionary activity.
Parts of the law are vaguely worded and it is unclear how it will be interpreted. The law includes broad bans of all missionary activity that is aimed at “violation of public safety and public order; extremist activity, coercion into destroying the family,” “damaging morals,” and “motivation of individuals to refuse to fulfil civic duties established by law.” Such broad categories leave it impossible for individuals to determine if they are complying. “Refusing to fulfil civic duties,” for example, was a catchall used in the Soviet era to jail religious dissidents.
Ambiguities abound. Is it illegal missionary work if the “missionary” does not belong to a registered religious organization? What activities are “church services” or “religious ordinances and ceremonies” (that are permitted in homes) and when do those activities become illegal “missionary work”? Several individuals in various regions have already been prosecuted under the law, and the precedents suggest that the law will be interpreted broadly. A Ghanian citizen was convicted August 1 for performing baptisms in a rented sanatorium swimming pool, even though he claimed we was not trying to involve new members. A U.S. independent Baptist preacher was fined August 14th for holding a worship service in his home because he allegedly advertised it on the bulletin board of nearby apartment buildings.
Constitutional challenges to the new law are in the works, and one can still hope that the law will be struck down. The law clearly violates Russian constitutional protections of freedom of speech and religion, as well as Russia’s international commitments to religious freedom and free speech. Russian law and international norms all give latitude for laws that would protect the state from credible threats of violence, but by the banning simple sharing of beliefs, the Yarovaya law moves clearly into the core of protected religious speech and harms otherwise law-abiding citizens. Mikhail Fedotov, the chair of the Russian Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, has personally protested to Putin that the law would “create unjustified and excessive restrictions on the freedom of conscience of believers of all religions, and encroach upon the fundamental constitutional principle of non-interference by the state in the internal arrangements of religious associations.”
Originally published in Cornerstone, the blog of the Religious Freedom Institute, on 30 August 2016.