Russian religion law amended


In particular, the document forbids persons who are suspected of financing terrorism to lead religious groups and participate in their activity

TASS, 3 October 2021


Changes in the Russian federal law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations," forbidding individual persons to be a leader or member of a religious group, take legal effect as of 3 October.


This involves the federal law "On introducing changes in the federal law 'On freedom of conscience and religious associations,'" which was adopted in the spring and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in April of this year.


In particular, the document forbids persons suspected of financing terrorism and in whose activities a court has found indicators of extremist activity to lead religious groups and participate in their activity. A similar ban has been established for foreigners and persons without citizenship with respect to whom a decision has been made as to the undesirability of their visiting and residing in Russia.


In the opinion of experts questioned by TASS, changes in the law, on one hand, will help to protect believers and the national security of the country, but on the other hand, problems may arise with its implementation connected with respecting the rights of law-abiding members of religious associations.


Preventive nature of the law


The first deputy chairman of the synodal Department for Relations of the Church with Society and News Media of the Russian Orthodox Church, doctor of political science Alexander Shchipkov, thinks that the updated law has a preventive nature. "The law will simply prevent persons engaged in illegal activity from leading religious organizations and participating in them. Because they are using a religious organization as a 'cover.' Second, they are deceiving law-abiding believing citizens who are members of that organization and do not suspect that their leaders may be criminals. Thus this law aims, on one hand, to protect the national security of Russia, and, on the other hand, to protect law-abiding believers who may be exploited for nefarious, criminal purposes," Shchipkov explained for TASS.


He specified that the law aims to restrict participation in religious associations by persons who are known to be engaged in legalization and laundering of money, income, received by criminality or income associated with the financing of terrorism, in some cases for persons in whose activities extremist actions are discovered and proven. "Or this involves foreign citizens whose property or resources have been sanctioned because of suspected illegal activity, primarily connected with complicity in terrorism," Shchipkov added.


In his opinion, Russian legislation regarding the activity of religious organizations and associations at the present time is "very liberal," since it permits foreign citizens to lead religious organizations and groups. The updated law merely restricts the participation of some groups of foreigners in the activity of such organizations and groups. "In some countries, foreign citizens—with a foreign residence permit and citizenship—are not permitted to lead religious organizations. We do not have such a regulation and our legislation in this case is very liberal," Shchipkov emphasized.


Possible problems in implementation of the law


Roman Lunkin, a Russian religious studies scholar and director of the Center for Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, suggested that problems may arise in the implementation of the updated law. In particular, law-abiding believers may suffer.


"That is, the police arrive and see that something is going on here, some kind of religious activity. Such as evangelistic activity. If they see that something is being preached and it is all evangelistic activity. Consequently any inspection of documents in this group may potentially identify some person, because of which the whole religious congregation suffers. Proceeding as the law is written, I think that the police will not take the side of the believers or leaders of the association and congregation who did not know that such a 'dark' persons had come to the group, or mosque, or house of worship to read sacred scriptures," Lunkin explained for TASS.


Also a problem may arise of determining the composition of the community, association, or group, the religious scholar thinks.


"As a rule, among the Orthodox most likely there is some parish staff, but there isn't in all parishes. Among protestants, especially among Baptists, there is a list of baptized members of the church who attend services. But this is an internal document, that is, it is not filed with agencies of government. According to the constitution, government agencies do not have the right to request such internal documents. Consequently, in order to identify a participant, a member, among, for example, Muslims or protestants who is reading forbidden literature, such a participant can be identified only by the police conducting a raid," Lunkin noted.


Regarding the main confessions


These innovations in the law pertain to the activity of traditional religious organizations of Russia, the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of Russia explained (sic—"do not"?).


"These amendments do not in any way pertain to religious organizations, inasmuch as these restrictions in regard to religious organizations have already previously been prescribed in federal law. These pertain to religious groups, which have been created without the formation of a legal entity. Now these restrictions will be extended also to religious groups," a statement provided in response to a TASS inquiry says. This was also confirmed for the news agency by the synodal Department for Relations of the Church and News Media of the Russian Orthodox Church. (tr. by PDS, posted 6 October 2021)


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