Criticism of Duma's evangelism bill


State Duma may forbid missionary activity without a special document

by Aleksei Zygmont

Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 24 June 2016


Today the State Duma adopted on third reading an "antiterrorism package" of two draft laws, which propose, inter alia, to introduce a number of amendments into the federal law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations." The bills forbid missionary activity without the possession of a document from a quorum of a religious organization and also information with complete details about their registration. Identified as the authors of these legislative initiative are a member of the Federation Council, Viktor Ozerov, and a deputy of the State Duma, Irina Yarovaya.


A critical expert conclusion about it was issued by the Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the president of the Russian federation, whose representatives declared that in the event of its adoption, threats of terrorism and extremism will not be reduced but the constitutional rights of citizens will be jeopardized. The chief editor of the magazine Religion and Law, Anatoly Pchelintsev, told NG that he agrees with such an assessment: "There was practically no time for discussion of this draft law. It was adopted back stage. And it was not even considered by the appropriate committee. On 24 June it will be considered on third reading, at the last session of the current convocation of the State Duma. Further, this law has remained on the sidelines of public opinion. Before 21 June I had not seen a single public statement on the part of religious organizations. The law in its new version is fraught with very serious negative consequences for society."


"There is a contradiction in the law itself," the expert continues. "A chapter was added to article 24 which says that missionary activity is prohibited in residences. On the other hand, article 16, point 2 says that it is permitted to conduct worship services in such premises. Since according to the amendments, missionary activity includes worship services, the question arises: is it still allowed or prohibited? The draft proposes that only official representatives of a religious organization or group who have a document have the right to evangelize. But religious groups do not have the right of legal persons and there cannot be any document. Thus the bureaucratic burden on the law 'On freedom of conscience' is growing, but its effectiveness is not increased from this."


Bishop Konsrtantin Bendas of the Russian Associated Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith suggests "that this draft law is not only unconstitutional but, excuse me, simply stupid, but it is also extremely dangerous for the Russian state and the stability of society." "This law is not antiextremist, but antireligious," Bendas thinks. "The point is that here is obvious restriction and a practical prohibition on people's disseminating their religious convictions, which is guaranteed by the constitution and existing versions of the law. The ordinary Russian citizen from now on does not have the right to mention any of his religious views in an casual conversation, in conversation with guests, in public transportation, with fellow travelers in a train coupe, and even in an interview with Nezavisimaia Gazeta. For this he must present a special document confirming his affiliation with a religious organization. Practically all periodicals will have to introduce compulsory censorship. The strange and wild provisions of the bill are connected with a reference to geography. For example, an organization has issued a document, but it applies only to Moscow. So I travel on the electric train to a dacha in Moscow province, and in this case even my document will not protect me during a verification." The head of ROSKhVE, Senior Bishop Sergei Rakhovsky, also sent on 22 June an appeal to a number of key persons in the State Duma, requesting that they not permit a hasty adoption of the amendments.


For Muslims the new bill signals first the difficulty of the attractions of foreign religious figures. The chairman of the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of Moscow, Ildar Aliautdinov, commented on it from this point of view: "It is incorrect to make persons not permitted to travel out of all those who are merely suspected of having something to do with forbidden activity. After all it is not always possible to be sure of the real affiliation of a person. There are very many Muslims and there is great diversity of tendencies and views, and sermons in some mosques sometimes have a radical hue. Most often it is the youth who, out of ignorance and naivety, communicate with representatives of suspicious religious groups, thereby inflicting on themselves a certain mark. And so certainly it makes sense to mitigate the bill. A total ban on travel is not correct. This should be a precise and selective measure for those who do not themselves have anything directly to do with terrorist activity or a criminal record."


In the evening of 22 June, events took an unexpected turn, when it was learned that the part pertaining to missionary activity had quietly disappeared from the "package" on the State Duma website. However its text had been retained on other resources. Because of this it remains unclear whether the notorious amendment will be considered in the Duma today. (tr. by PDS, posted 24 June 2016)


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