Russian religions oppose changes in religion law


Historically clergy of most confessions received foreign education

Vzgliad, 18 September 2020


Next week will begin in the State Duma a consideration of amendments in the law "On freedom of conscience," which, in the opinion of their initiators will prevent the appearance in Russia of religious extremists and protect the country from "religious neocolonialism." However such an initiative stumbled over criticism from Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims. What is the essence of their complaints and will lawmakers manage to reach agreement with believers?


This week the State Duma specialized Committee on the Development of Civil Society and Affairs of Public and Religious Associations recommended adoption on first reading of the amendments to the law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations." The innovations, among other things, provide for clergy and "personnel of religious organizations" who received religious education abroad to undergo mandatory recertification in Russian educational institutions. If they do not, clergy will be denied the right to engage in educational and—what is yet more important—"religious activity." Hearings on the amendments are scheduled for 22 September.


The legislative initiative has already evoked criticism among representatives of traditional confessions of Russia. "We understand that the amendments are aimed, in the first place, at combating extremism and terrorism on religious grounds, but the struggle with extremism and terrorism should be conducted without causing damage to confessions that are traditional for Russia," the administrator of the Central Khurul (Buddhist temple) of Kalmykia, Yonten-Gelong, told the newspaper Vzgliad.


"Historically, in the course of many centuries, clergy of traditional Buddhist regions of Russia received education abroad, primarily in Tibet and now in India and Mongolia," Yonten-Gelong explained.


"The majority of religious teachers who now provide Buddhist education in Kalmykia, Buryatia, Trans-Baikal, Tyva, and major cities (Moscow, St. Petersburg) are graduates of monastic universities located in the territory of India, Nepal, China, Mongolia, and other countries."


Moreover, Yonten-Gelong stressed, in Kalmykia, for example, there are no registered religious educational institutions for clergy. "This means that in the event of the adoption of these amendments, Buddhism in Kalmykia simply will cease its existence," the clergyman worries.


Similar worries were expressed in conversation with the newspaper Vzgliad by the head of the Religious Assembly of Muslims of Russia, a member of the Public Chamber, Mufti Albir Krganov. "A majority of our religious leaders studied in Bukhara. But today Uzbekistan is another state," the interlocutor noted. "Will we be forced to require going through recertification of all of our respected muftis, who by their faith and righteousness have proven their position in religion and life?"


The mufti also expressed surprise: why is it only those who received religious education abroad who must go through recertification? "One gets the impression that there is a threat only from a religious point of view. But any person can return from abroad with other ideas. Religious organizations should determine for themselves how to conduct recertification," the member of the Public Chamber is convinced.


It is understandable that there is a danger that the bearer of radical views may get a theological diploma abroad, the mufti noted.


"But the Muslim community has an understanding that radicals should not engage in missionary activity and draw new people into their ranks," Krganov emphasized. "The Council on Islamic Education has previously concluded independently an agreement with several institutions of higher education, including one of the oldest in the world, the al-Azhar of Egypt, to admit only students from centralized religious organizations or educational institutions."


The president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR), Rabbi Alexander Boroda, spoke in a similar spirit. Centralized religious organizations may themselves certify representatives of clergy who have received education abroad, the rabbi told RIA Novosti. "In this way the organizations will confirm both the competence and legitimacy of their religious activity in Russia. Such permission will help establish limitations in the future and remove tensions regarding the status of foreign diplomas," Boroda noted.


The president of FEOR pointed to one of the weak points of the draft law. In various confessions there are highly placed persons (for example, teachers of religious schools and higher education institutions) who for objective reasons received diplomas abroad. "In the Soviet Union neither rabbis, nor imams, nor priests of many confessions were trained," the rabbi explained.


"And of course it will seem absurd if these people have to study in educational institutions in which they themselves are teaching."


"In the ideal conditions, the amendments should be rejected and sent for revision, taking into account the opinion and interests of traditional confessions and the religious organizations of Russia that represent them," the administrator of the Central Khurul of Kalmykia, Yonten-Gelong thinks.


In the opinion of the interlocutor, one of the possible resolutions (along with religious organizations receiving the right to independently certify their clergy) could be the creation in the Ministry of Justice or another competent agency of a "white list." We are talking about a register of foreign religious educational institutions whose graduates will be automatically certified and who would not require getting additional education, Yonten-Gelong explained. "For traditional Buddhist regions these are monasteries of Drepung Gomang, Gyudmed, Namgyal and others located in India," the clergyman noted as examples.


In response to the draft law, the Federation Council's Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Structure also noted, over the signature of Andrei Klishas, that "a number of religions and religious denominations existing in Russia, including those belonging to traditional religions, do not have religious educational organizations." As an example he cited Kalmykia, where there are no Buddhist educational institutions and the nearest one is located in Buryatia and belongs to another branch of Buddhism. But Kalmyk lamas can study in India, Mongolia, Nepal, and China. Therefore it seems "incorrect" to raise the question concerning their Russian certification.


The committee headed by Klishas proposes to supplement the drafrt law with provisions according to which the Ministry of Justice will compose a register of foreign religious educational organizations where getting a religious education will not require supplementary certification in Russia.


At the same time, the director of the Center for Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, considers that "behind the external elements that are justifying these amendments" there are provisions that violate the Fundamental Law and the law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations."


The expert described his concern associated with the fact that before the appearance of information about this draft law there was a wave of cancellation of licenses of religious educational institutions by Rosobrnadzor [Federal Service for Supervision of Education and Science]. "For example, in February the Moscow Baptist seminary, established by the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, was stripped of its license. In late August, the Moscow Islamic Institute of the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation lost its license. All of this seemed to be links on a single chain," Lunkin explained for the newspaper Vzgliad.


According to the expert, any religious person who comes to minister in Russia will now "have to get a paper that he has undergone recertification or some kind of courses in Russia." "It is not clear what may be the sanctions if there is no such paper. I imagine that they will be fines. Or they will impose prescriptions on centralized religious organizations if a specialist, who received higher religious education abroad, works there," Lunkin supposed.


Meanwhile, the newspaper Vzgliad was told in the State Duma that any foreign preachers will be able to deliver one-time lectures without any certification within the circle of their own "colleagues" and believers. "This is controlled by the law on education and is not the subject of the regulation of this draft law," the chairman of the State Duma Committee on Development of Civil Society and Affairs of Public and Religious Associations, Sergei Gavrilov, said.


He said that individual liturgical activities are not subject to certification, like, for example, consecration of buildings in the Christian tradition. "But if you, as a member of a religious organization, a minister, or a clergyman intend to teach permanently in Russia, regardless of whom—a group of believers or other clergy—you must get certification," Gavrilov contined.


He said that such requirements exist in many countries, both in Asia and in Europe, particularly in Germany and France. "Recently a similar law was adopted in Bulgaria, which is much stricter than our draft law," Gavrilov noted. The deputy cited the example of the certification of a medic or builder, which is mandatory for a foreign specialist in any country. And in this case, in his opinion, it is yet more serious: "The spiritual sphere is very subtle. In crisis circumstances people become victims of various kinds of fraud which hide behind religious activity. To say nothing about the preaching of Russophobia."


Gavrilov explained that the draft law is aimed at preventing the appearance within religious organizations of extremists whose stay on the territory of Russia is undesirable. "This is a matter of the security of our country, which often is the object of extremist and terrorist internet organizations on the world level. Russia is a great field, including for religious neocolonialism. In any case it is impossible for us to return in this sphere to the situation we had in the 1990s," the deputy declared.


He said the Russian Muslim umma is interested in such a law even more than other confessions. "Both imams and muftis do not want for us to have foreign preachers bearing ideas of extremism and hatred in our mosques and madrassas. But in subsequent Duma hearings, all problematic issues, including from the Buddhist side, must be effectively removed," Gavrilov concluded. (tr. by PDS, posted 19 September 2020)

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