THEOLOGY LESSONS
by Deacon Andrei Kuraev
Trud, 21 August 1997

Consider this sequence of thought: "According to the new law religious associations are forbidden to teach the fundamentals of their religion to anyone other than their adherents, that is, it actually prohibits preaching and missionary activity" (Literaturnaia gazeta, 23 July 1997). The basis of this reasoning is article 5.3: "Religious associations have the right to teach religion immediately to their followers." Here is a permission and not a prohibition. There is not one word, nor implication, of a prohibition on missionary activity in the law. Nowhere is it said that religious associations do not have the right to address their preaching to people who are not their adherents. Have the democratic reporters forgotten their own favorite principle: "whatever is not forbidden by the law is permitted"?

So, here partisanship obviously has overtaken honesty. And we must not forget that the restrictive interpretation of this standard of the law is impossible because the constitution in article 28 recognizes: "Each person is guaranteed the right freely to disseminate religious convictions." The standard of the law cannot be interpreted in such as way as to contradict the constitutional standard. This means that even without any amendment, missionary activity is recognized by the draft law and is permitted and is legal.

Criticism of the law tries to find contradictions where in reality there is a relationship of mutual accommodation. That religious associations have the right to teach their adherents does not mean that individuals are prohibited from disseminating their religious views nor that a member of one religious group cannot address his preaching to people of another religious group or who are unaffiliated with religion. If the law could be understood otherwise, then I would not defend the draft for one minute because it would make my whole life illegal. For the past six years I have been occupied primarily in preaching Orthodoxy to atheists and sectarians, but, to tell the truth, in all my life I have taught only one Sunday school class.

There is another case where the opposition is baseless. The president's letter to the duma affirms that "article 4.3 obliges the state to give financial, material, and other aid to religious organizations to provide the teaching of general education curriculum in educational institutions formed by religious organizations."

First, the president reads the law too strictly: the law does not have the word "obliges."

Second, the issue is precisely general education curricula. The state must take care that children, who have been sent by their parents to a religious school, learn the general education curricula no less well than their peers in secular schools. Religious schools are poor. And, as far as I know, they constantly try to economize on the teaching of secular subjects. To keep this from happening, to keep the horizon of pupils from believing families from being restricted, the law contains an article by which the state may help even those children who are studying in religious schools.

And third, the president did not quote this article fully: it ends with a statement that aid can be given only to schools "formed in accordance with legislation regarding education." Nevertheless the president's letter affirms that article 4.3 "contradicts the law 'on education,' according to which nongovernmental general educational institutions have the right to state financing from the time of their state accreditation provided they fulfill the requirements of the general educational curriculum." So, where is the contradiction? The law on freedom of conscience says that a religious school can receive aid only when it acts in accordance with the law on education, but the president affirms that the law on freedom of conscience contradicts the law on education. We can only speculate why Mr. Rozenbaum and other judicial consultants of the president forced the first person of the Russian state into a position of an irritable, inattentive, and simply judicially illiterate reader of the draft law.

Finally, the claim that the preamble of the law contradicts the constitution sounds quite strange. It says that the duma is adopting this law "respecting Orthodoxy as an integral part of the all-Russian historical, spiritual, and cultural heritage, on an equality with Islam, which has many millions of adherents, as well as Buddhism, Judaism and other religions that have traditionally existed in Russia." The preamble does not have the force of law. It is not a legal norm, And it does not require the lawmakers to declare to anyone or on any basis their attitudes toward the religious convictions of their electors. The law itself provides no preeminence or privileges to the confessions mentioned in the preamble. It is no more than a gesture and as a gesture the Orthodox church does not need it. All sociological investigations show that the people have much more respect and confidence for the church than for the duma or the president. Thus it is necessary to move from gestures of respect to genuine cooperation. Rather it is even an embarassment that this preamble at its second reading was worded as if Orthodoxy was higher than Islam and this caused tensions in our relations with Muslims, who felt insulted.

But nevertheless the state has the right to express its respect to anyone it considers necessary. If the state expresses its repsect to the literary heritage of F.M. Dostoevsky, this is no reason for admirers of L.N. Tolstoy to take offense (and this despite the comment of Nikolai Berdiav, whom I consider to be extremely insightful, that all people fall into three groups, those who love Dostoevsky, those who love Tolstoy, and those who love nobody).

The Orthodox church really is the most respected institution in society. What is strange that the deputies elected by the people should express their respect to that which their electors respect? It is not strange that people who openly oppose Orthodoxy attack this preamble (as was done, for example, by the Baptist A. Pchelentsev, affirming that "in violation of the constitutional equality of all religious associations before the law the preamble gives a list of state-respected confessions"). It is strange that the president of Russia demands to remove this gesture of respect from the preamble to the law. I suggest that for the president confessions that represent the enormous majority of Russian citizens should be respected irrespective of his personal attitude toward religion. And Boris Nikolaevich says to people he talks with: " esteemed Ivan Ivanovich" or "deeply esteemed Anatoly Borisovich." And although we are equal with Anatoly Borisovich before the law, I am not offended when the president calls him "deeply esteemed," and he does not say that to me. Perhaps, when we become acquainted the president will show respect to me.

So it is possible to deal in this way with new religious movements. When we become acquainted with you and interact, and if you really bring good to people and the country, then you will be treated as those whom we respect. Besides, it is impossible not to be surprised when opponents of the law threaten religious schism in society if the law is not enacted. Moreover, it seems, the law contains a "real threat of religious civil war." (Izvestiia 16 July 97). The letter from V. Borshchev, S. Kovalev, and other professional dissidents resounds: "The law actually ignites war between traditional religions and nontraditinal religions that are subjected to discrimination" (Literaturnaia gazeta, 23 July 97). So if these nontraditional confessions are so militant that they could go to war over such discrimination, then perhaps Russia should be more concerned about such guests. It is strange that the "rights defenders'" insult to millions of Orthodox and millions of Muslims (ignoring the appeals of the patriarch and Muslim leaders is insulting) does not evoke tensions in society. But limiting the rights of small sects suddenly inspires in them an apocalyptic nightmare. In any case, is democracy the fulfillment of the will of the majority or of the sects? Concern for the rights of minorities is necessary. But only when the state knows how to respect the majority and its interests.

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