Representatives of the confessions are upset by the draft of amendments to law on freedom of conscience
by Pavel Korobov
Kommersant, 23 June 2016
On Friday, deputies of the State Duma will adopt on second reading a package of "antiterrorist" amendments, some of which pertain to the conduct of missionary activity. These innovations were completely unexpected for religious leaders of Russia, who are upset that in the development of the draft law, they were not consulted. In their opinion, the draft law contradicts the constitution and will complicate life for religious organizations.
The draft law composed by the head of the State Duma Committee on Security and Combating Corruption, Irina Yarovaya, and the chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, Viktor Ozerov (as Kommersant wrote on 21 June) affects more than ten laws, including the law "On freedom of conscience and religious association," which would be supplemented by a chapter, "Missionary activity." These words are how the authors of the draft law designate "public performance of worship services and other religious rituals and ceremonies; distributing of religious literature and printed, audio, and video materials and other objects of worship and religious significance; public collection of contributions for religious needs; conduct of prayer and religious meeting and/or speaking at them; and preaching activity." The draft law proposes to prohibit preaching in residences. It also prohibits missionary activity if it aims for disruption of public security, extremism, and encouragement of destruction of the family, and also infringement of the person, rights, and liberty of citizens. The authors of the draft law intend to protect the morality and health of citizens themselves from use in "connection with religious activity" of drugs and psychotropic substances, hypnosis, "lewd and other illegal activities," and from encouragement of suicide, and also from refusals of medical aid on the basis of religious reasons. Under a special prohibition fall obstruction of required education, compelling of members and followers of religious associations to alienate their property for the benefit of a religious association, and also threats to the life, health, and property of those who want to quit a religious association.
The draft law upset religious leaders mainly in that the developers did not consult with them. "The document needs improvement," Rabbi Shimon Levin, the chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations in Russia, is convinced. "The amendments pertain to the law on freedom of conscience. When changes are introduced into such laws, it is necessary first of all to conduct consultations with leaders of the confessions. The people who wrote these amendments do not at all represent today's state of affairs in the religious sphere. Such things must be handled carefully and changes must be introduced cautiously, because this sphere is very sensitive."
"The draft law aims at the restriction and formal defining of missionary activity by nontraditional religious organizations, who invite foreign citizens to engage in preaching and other religious activity," Abbess Kseniia, the director of the legal service of the Moscow patriarchate, explained for Kommersant. "It was worked out without the participation of the confessions and was not cleared with us." In her opinion, "practice will show all of the plusses and minuses of the new law. If it should hinder the mission of the RPTs, we will initiate the introduction of amendments into it."
"This is a criminal law," Bishop Konstantin Bendas, the first deputy of the ruling bishop and the chancellor of the Russian Associated Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, is convinced. "It is aimed against sincerely believing people, against the church, against religion." In his opinion, "adoption of the proposed amendments will lead to the violation of the constitutional rights of citizens to freedom to disseminate their religious convictions and a harsh censorship of all news media and the Internet." "Now within the framework of a newspaper interview or in the course of a discussion on a television talk-show nobody will be able to speak on religious topics or to quote sacred texts without special permission for missionary activity from a religious organizations and only within the boundaries of a certain 'territorial sphere of its activity,'" the bishop complained. "This criminal poppycock cannot be accepted. I hope that the lawmakers have enough wisdom to turn down the draft law for the sake of all that is holy."
"This initiative was not discussed in the relevant standing committee and with religious organizations, and it violates the spirit of the constitution," declared Rushan Abbiasov, the first vice-chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia and head of the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of Moscow province. "The bill designates as missionary activity dissemination of faith and religious convictions through mass news media and the Internet and also in places other than houses of worship and structures and other places and sites especially designated for worship services, religious veneration, and pilgrimage." But article 28 of the constitution of the RF guarantees to every person freedom of conscience and religious confession "including the right to profess individually and jointly with other persons any religion or to profess none and to freely choose, hold, and disseminate religious and other convictions and to act in accordance with them." The amendments tell negatively upon the activity of religious organizations, the mufti thinks. Regional and municipal authorities are not always willing to allocate parcels of land for construction of mosques, and therefore religious organizations are forced to conduct religious rituals and spiritual and moral education in homes, including in residences."
"The draft law casts doubt upon the constitutional foundations of the state, in particular on freedom of conscience and freedom to disseminate one's convictions," thinks Roman Lunkin, the president of the Guild of Experts on Religion and Law. "The bill makes evangelism effectively impossible outside of houses of worship, which reproduces thoroughly the soviet religion policy and the soviet system of fines. The deputies are equating missionary activity with religious activity, prohibiting either preaching or worship services in residences, which contradicts the provisions of the law on freedom of conscience." In his opinion, "the authors of the draft are declaring a hunt for all groups who assemble in homes and for all believers who intend to discuss God, if they do not possess documents." "It is also unclear from the draft how 'missionaries' are to be monitored in the news media and the Internet," the expert puzzles. In his opinion, "the bill may evoke criticism on the part of the international community against Russia; in the event of that they will call the adoption of the law an instrument for suppression of religious liberty." (tr. by PDS, posted 23 June 2016)
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