Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - The Russian Federation

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2004
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - The Russian Federation, 1 May 2004, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Since its inception, the Commission has monitored and reported on the status of freedom of religion or belief in the Russian Federation. Russia has consistently drawn the attention of the Commission not because of the severity of the country's religious freedom violations, but because of the fragility of human rights, including religious freedom. Russia is also a model, especially for other former Soviet states and other nations struggling to establish democratic systems after a history of despotism.

In its May 2003 report on Russia, the Commission expressed strong concern that the Russian government was retreating from democratic reform, thereby endangering the significant gains made for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, in the dozen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recent curtailments in media freedom and in the role of political parties, as well as proposed legislative restrictions on freedom of assembly, are indications that progress towards democracy is being halted, if not reversed. Most, if not all, of the concerns about freedom of religion or belief raised by the Commission in the past appear to be directly related to the growing influence of authoritarian, and perhaps even chauvinistic, strains in the Russian government. The country's progress toward democratic reform based on rule of law and the protection of human rights is now in peril.

Clearly, the practice of religion in Russia is freer than at any time in its history. Despite that improvement, problems remain. For example, a federal law on religious organizations enacted in 1997 contains provisions that have prevented some religious groups from registering and thus practicing freely. Regional governments have often passed ordinances that result in discrimination against minority religious groups, and acts of violence against members of religious minorities are widespread. What is more, foreign religious leaders and workers have experienced difficulty gaining entry or maintaining residence in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has sought preferential treatment from the state in a way that calls into question whether religious freedom will be guaranteed for all. Yet, in the late 1990s, the Russian government responded to some of these concerns, and Russian courts provided some protection against violations. Until recently, progress was continuing.

In the past few years, however, trends have emerged that have raised serious questions about Russia's commitment to democratic reform and protection of religious freedom. Russian authorities have denied registration efforts of certain religious communities, based on the allegedly insufficient time they have existed, despite a February 2002 Russian Constitutional Court decision that found that an active religious organization registered before the 1997 law could not be deprived of its legal status for failing to re-register. The government has meddled in the internal affairs of religious communities, including the Jewish and Orthodox Old Believer communities.

The March 26, 2004 Moscow court decision banning the Jehovah's Witnesses in that city may mark a major shift in Russian official policy towards religious minorities. The protracted trial in Moscow took place even though 135,000 Jehovah's Witnesses practice their faith in registered communities in many other parts of Russia. If that decision is upheld on appeal, the Jehovah's Witnesses will become the first national religious organization to have a local branch banned under the 1997 law. The prosecutor's claim that Jehovah's Witnesses were inciting inter-religious conflict because they see their religion as having the sole claim to truth is especially troubling.

Official efforts to portray "foreign sects," mostly Evangelical Protestants, as alien to Russian culture and society appear to be escalating. In December 2003, state-controlled Kultura TV ran a film made in 1960 that reportedly portrays Pentecostals as practicing human sacrifice. This official campaign appears to be part of an increased effort by the Russian authorities to promote the "more equal" status of the state-approved forms of Russia's purported "traditional" religions: Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. A "Law on Traditional Religions," which was proposed in February 2002 and whose status remains unclear, would grant benefits, at varying levels, to these four religions. In March 2004, the Russian press reported that President Putin, while acknowledging the legal separation of church and state, said that he supports a legal initiative to "support the spiritual leaders of the traditional confessions," including on property issues.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has played a special role in Russian history and culture. Nevertheless, there is continued concern that the ROC enjoys a favored status among many Russian government officials, a situation that sometimes results in restrictions on other religious communities. President Putin recently declared that Orthodoxy is part of Russian culture and that, regardless of the legal separation of church and state, "in the soul of the people they belong together." Particularly on the local level, evidence suggests that the Orthodox Church has a very close relationship with officials and other state bodies. For example, there are frequent reports that minority religious communities must secure permission from the local Orthodox Church before being allowed to build a house of worship. Adherents of minority faiths in Russia, including Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and others, report that government officials often create barriers, and do so oftentimes at the behest of the Orthodox Church.

Russian authorities have increasingly denied visas or residence permits for clergy and other religious workers. Since the beginning of 2002, a Catholic Bishop and several priests have been expelled from Russia, including those who had lived in Russia for years. In addition to the denials or revocations of visas for Catholic priests, there were reportedly numerous other cases in which foreign religious workers were denied visas to enter or re-enter the country, including members of the Protestant Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths. The Buddhist community of Kalmykia continues to appeal to the Russian Foreign Ministry to reverse previous visa denials and allow its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit Russia. In late 2003, a court in Tatarstan denied a new residence permit to a Baptist missionary on the basis of the assessment of local security officials that his activities were "extremist."

Despite statements by President Putin decrying anti-Semitism and various government actions against extremist groups, violence against Jews continues. Jewish religious buildings have been subjected to vandalism and arson. The synagogue in Kostroma was vandalized in December 2003 and police have opened a criminal investigation. Three Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in Chelyabinsk in February 2004. In Moscow, an explosive device attached to a sign with an anti-Semitic slogan exploded in January 2004; police are investigating the incident. However, there are no reports of arrests in connection with similar incidents in Vladivostok, Moscow, and Kaliningrad.

The Russian authorities often seem to turn a blind eye to societal violence directed against certain religious communities, especially at the local level. On the eve of a national conference in January 2004, the "Initiative" Baptist church in Tula was bombed. Arsonists have attacked Pentecostal churches in Podolsk, Chekhovo, Balashikha, Tula, Lipetsk, and Nizhny Tagil. No criminal investigations into these incidents have been launched. In addition, individuals of nationalities traditionally associated with Islam have been subjected to numerous attacks in Russia. Rarely is anyone held to account. A Muslim cemetery was desecrated in February 2004.

Following a visit to Russia in January 2003, the Commission wrote to President Bush in May 2003 urging him to raise concerns about threats to religious freedom and democracy in Russia during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In July 2003, Commissioners took part in a special meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Freedom of Religion or Belief at which they held bilateral meetings with Russian government officials. In September 2003, Commission Chair Michael K. Young made a presentation on the Commission's religious freedom concerns on Russia to senior Administration officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations at the State Department's Europe-Eurasia Religious Freedom Roundtable.

In its May 2003 report, the Commission urged Congress to reinstate the Smith Amendment, which conditions certain foreign assistance to the Russian government on Presidential certification that the Russian government has not implemented any law or regulation that discriminated against religious groups in violation of international agreements to which the Russian Federation is a party. Congress included this provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004, now Public Law 108-199.

The Administration and several members of Congress have made clear their intention to seek the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. In March 2003, Congressman Charles Rangel introduced legislation to grant normal trade relations with Russia. The Rangel bill, introduced in the Senate by Senator Max Baucus, also included a requirement that the U.S. government should continue monitoring Russia's compliance with human rights standards, including through an annual assessment by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on whether Russia is adequately protecting freedom of religion or belief.

With regard to Russia, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • make clear its concern to the Russian government that efforts to combat terrorism should not be used as an unrestrained justification to restrict the rights, including religious freedom, of members of Russia's religious minorities;
  • continue to press the Russian government to ensure that the views expressed in the leaked "Zorin" report, in which Catholics, Protestants, and others have been grouped together with Islamic extremists and collectively labeled as threats to Russia's national security, are not adopted as Russian government policy;
  • urge the Russian government to ensure that any special role for the Orthodox Church or any other religious community does not result in violations of the rights of or discrimination against members of other religious groups;
  • continue to urge the Russian government to cease the practice of unfairly denying entry visas or residence permits to foreign clergy and other religious workers and to cease other forms of interference in the internal affairs of religious communities;
  • urge the government of Russia to monitor the actions of regional and local officials who interfere with the right to freedom of religion or belief, and to take steps to bring local laws and regulations on religious activities into conformity with the Russian Constitution and international human rights standards;
  • persistently urge the Russian government to take all appropriate steps to prevent and punish acts of anti-Semitism, including to condemn anti-Semitic acts, to pursue and prosecute the perpetrators of violent incidents of anti-Semitism, and, while vigorously protecting freedom of expression, to counteract anti-Semitic rhetoric and other organized anti-Semitic activities;
  • make clear its concern to the Russian government that hostile rhetoric against Muslims and the Islamic faith is fueling an atmosphere in which perpetrators believe they can attack Muslim or Muslim-appearing persons with impunity;
  • ensure that the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Chechnya remains a key issue in its bilateral relations with Russia and urge the Russian government to end, and prosecute acts of, torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other abuses by members of the military in Chechnya and to accept a site visit to Chechnya from the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Extrajudicial Executions, and Violence Against Women;
  • raise religious freedom and other human rights violations in multilateral fora, including the OSCE and the UN, and continue, on a bilateral basis, to encourage the government of Russia to agree to the request of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit Russia;
  • use every possible means to engage and support the genuine democrats in the Russian government at the federal and local levels, and ensure that U.S. aid programs are not being used to support the activities in Russia of authoritarian-minded officials; and
  • advance human rights, including religious freedom, in Russia by continuing to provide assistance, as appropriate, to non-governmental organizations, public interest groups, journalists, and academic institutions, and expand programs aimed at encouraging religious tolerance and supporting international standards on freedom of religion and other human rights.

In addition, the Commission recommends that if the Jackson-Vanik amendment is repealed with respect to Russia, the U.S. Congress should make certain that some other mechanism is in place to monitor the status of religious freedom and other human rights in Russia and report to Congress.

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