Russia’s New Anti-Missionary Law in Context

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.

Why Religious Freedom? Why the Religiously Committed, the Religiously Indifferent and Those Hostile to Religion Should Care

Brett G. Scharffs
Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies

Religious freedom:   Is it the grandparent of human rights, or the neglected stepchild? As with most false dichotomies, the answer is both. But it is also the underappreciated core, or tap root, of human rights. Why should we care about religious freedom? For the seeker of religious truth, the answer may be obvious: Religious freedom creates the conditions, the “constitutional space,” for investigation and the pursuit of truth. But what about those who fall into other groups? What about the religiously committed – who are confident they are in possession of religious truth. Or the religiously indifferent – who are not much interested in religion or spirituality. Or those who are affirmatively hostile to religion – those who believe religion does more harm than good. Should they – should we – care about religious freedom? There are three reasons why we should all care deeply about freedom of religion (and belief). First, is the role of religious freedom as a historical foundation for constitutional, political, civil and human rights. Without freedom of religion and belief (FORB), the entire human rights project may collapse from its own weight. Second,  FORB is necessary if we are to resist statism and other monistic views of state power. And third, we may not have the intellectual, political or rhetorical resources to defend conscience if we do not respect and protect FORB.

The paper on this subject by Professor Brett G. Scharffs, Francis R. Kirkham Professor of Law at BYU Law School and Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies,  has  recently been listed on SSRN’s Top Ten download list for two topics: (1) Human Rights, Justice for Nonhuman Animals, Ecologies, Environments and (2) Other Political Behavior: Race, Ethnicity & Identity Politics.

SSRN download here.

See the full paper here.

Welcome to Talk About: Law and Religion

Donlu Thayer
Senior Editor, International Center for Law and Religion Studies

Talk About: Law and Religion is a forum for publishing ideas and opinions about the topic and task that command our attention here at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School:  to secure the blessings of freedom of religion and belief for all people.  Such freedom, we believe, is fundamental to all other freedoms, is uniquely important for the flourishing of human beings and for the stability of our societies.

As do many of our associates in this work worldwide, we  approach our task as lawyers, but also as scholars and teachers, as citizens and believers. In all our roles we affirm the importance of the rule of law, in the context of an “ordered liberty” that can define, promote, and protect individual and collective freedoms, including and essentially the freedom of religion, conscience,  or belief, provided in virtually all of the world’s constitutions, and in international instruments to which most of the governments of the world subscribe.

As lawyers admitted to American bars, we have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which in the first right enumerated in its Bill of Rights protects freedom of religion. We have sworn moreover to follow professional codes that demand, for example, conduct “characterized at all times by personal courtesy and professional integrity in the fullest sense ….  mindful of our obligations to the administration of justice, which is a truth-seeking process designed to resolve human and societal problems in a rational, peaceful, and efficient manner. We must remain committed to the rule of law as the foundation for a just and peaceful society.” [Preamble, Utah Rules of Professionalism and Civility]

As believers we follow a faith tradition whose founder, Joseph Smith, declared that “by proving contraries truth is made manifest.” If proving contraries might seem the very occupation of lawyers in a common law tradition, we know that , in practice, the truth-seeking process can be a casualty of a relentless march to victory — not only in the courtroom but in the halls of government, in public discourse, even in private conversation. Proving contraries is a patient, thoughtul, yielding,  humble task, easily destroyed by adversarial postures bent towards victory at all costs.

Do we really, as some people are saying these days, live in a “post-truth age”? Are we more partisans than citizens?  Is the quest for triumph of one’s personal agenda, the push for vindication of one’s own thoughts or desires, all there is in the public conversation?  Is there even a conversation going on?  Is anyone listening?

We know that of course many are listening, that many have thoughtul things to say that can help us test the contraries in matters essential to the preservation of the human race, and the elevation of the human spirit, bringing us closer to mutual understanding. Bringing us closer to truth. We just have to keep the conversation going.

As a high-conflict mediator I learned the critical importance of creating and maintaining the “safe space”, the space where differing, even fundamentally opposing needs, desires, motives, points of view can be heard and held, no resolution forced, until people participating in good faith can come to concord, or at the very least can part in peace.  Tough work.

This forum is meant to be a safe space where writers can present ideas, sometimes difficult or controversial, about the interface of law and religion,  and where readers can prove the contraries, in the hopes of moving towards fruitful mutual understanding.

Welcome to the conversation!