Russian high court resists trend in religious policy


by Alexander Soldatov

Novaia Gazeta, 16 November 2019


It required more than a month for the Constitutional Court of Russia to formulate a decision on the case of a Seventh-Day Adventist from Rostov oblast, Olga Glamozdinova. The hearings were held back on 8 October, but the court announced the decision on 14 November. And it became quite sensational for the modern Russian Federation, where it is usual only to introduce ever new restrictions of the rights of believers if they do not belong to one of the four "traditional" religious organizations. (The constitution does not distinguish between "traditional" and "nontraditional" believers, guaranteeing everybody the identical rights.)


The plot of the case is simple but it affects the interests of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens. Olga Glamozdinova invited her fellow believers to prayer meetings in a residence belonging to her in the village of Veselyi. In early 2017 she concluded with the local congregation of Adventists an agreement for free use providing the congregation the right to conduct meetings in this house for four hours a week. Rosreestr opposed this and fined Glamozdinova 10,000 rubles. Courts of general jurisdiction analyzed this dispute and ruled that the residence and the land parcel with it cannot be used "in a way not designated" for religious activity.


The logic of the Constitutional Court, which did not agree with Rosreestr and the local course, turned out to be almost philosophical!


It consists in the fact that human life is not only a physical but also a spiritual phenomenon. That means a residential building is meant to also satisfy spiritual needs of residents, including religious ones. To be sure, the court's decision contains a qualification. A residence provided to a religious organization must not acquire characteristic signs of a "liturgical" building (like cupolas, minarets, etc.) or an administrative building. In that case, the court suggests, misuse is already occurring. To be sure the line there is very fine and, if you will, it is impossible to define it objectively. If, for example, a pious bureaucrat or oligarch erects an iconostasis with an altar in his home (which is not so rare nowadays), then should it be viewed as "characteristic signs of a liturgical building"? The law does not answer that question.


Why does the C.C. decision affect hundreds of thousands of believers? In the 20th century, Russia went through the terrible experience of total religious persecution for the sake of building an atheist society. Peaks of persecutions occurred in the 20s and 30s and the beginning of the 60s. Each such period led to the emergence of a multitude of "catacombs," and underground religious groups of various confessions, forcing believers outside the legal field. After all, you do not banish faith with persecutions. . . .


By 1939 only about 400 open churches remained in the U.S.S.R., mainly "renovationist" ones that were under the complete control of the NKVD. At the same time, according to the 1937 census, a majority of soviet citizens called themselves believers. They worshiped in homes, sometimes in secret societies, of which there were several thousands. The war changed the picture: in 1943 Stalin reconstituted the Moscow patriarchate, recognizing attending its churches as the only permissible form of profession of the Orthodox faith in the U.S.S.R. Persecution of the "catacombs" that did not wish to recognize the artificial construct only intensified.


A weak likeness of the repressions of the 30s was the "Khrushchev persecution" of the early 60s. But even it left traces in the form of gigantic Baptist and Adventist brotherhoods that decided to refuse soviet registration. In documents of the Council of Religious Affairs they are called "Initsiativniki." Hundreds of local churches of these protestant groups have refused registration until the present, gathering for worship in private premises and continually facing administrative pressure from the government.


Several confessions in the U.S.S.R. were denied registration categorically—primarily Jehovah's Witnesses, True Orthodox Christians, Christ-Believers, Skoptsy, Beguny, and a number of Old Believer concords. Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) began receiving registration only under Brezhnev in the late 60s.


According to international and Russian rights advocacy organizations (the American Commission on International Religious Freedom, Amnesty International, Memorial, and others), Russia today is experiencing a new wave of religious persecutions.


Those same Jehovah's Witnesses, who were officially recognized as victims of widespread repression and even received financial compensation for this, are again completely driven underground: in 2017 the Supreme Court prohibited their activity. Their translation of the Bible was entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials, and its group reading is considered to be a crime.


In Tula, authorities tried to destroy a house of worship of "Initsiativniki" Baptists.


In the Moscow suburb of Noginsk, a church of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is being threatened.


In 2015, in Penza, court bailiffs demolished a whole monastery of the True Orthodox Church.


In 2009-2010, all 11 historic churches of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church in Suzdal were seized.


Round-ups of Muslims "illegally" meeting in individual prayer buildings are being conducted since their refusal to go to a mosque is considered to be a sign of "extremism."


With such a "religious policy," accompanied also by a sharp decline in the authority of "traditional" religious organizations, primarily the Russian Orthodox Church, the number of house churches and prayer rooms will only grow. In the country, the very type of religiosity is changing: from demonstrative massive it is becoming private chamber and "alternative." The degree of prestige of any congregation is now directly proportional to its independence from the government, especially in the eyes of the youth. In this context, the decision of the Constitutional Court is a step toward meeting civil society, its unhypocritical believing portion. (tr. by PDS, posted 18 November 2019)
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