by Alexander Olegovich Morozov,
assistant editer of Metaphrasis Religious Information Service

In the process of public dicussion of additions to the law "On Freedom of Religious Confessions" the question is posed more often: what does the Russian public know about the attempts to amend the legislation on religious confessions? We shall choose one, and perhaps the chief, problem which the new law draft is called to resolve. How should state agencies be guided in work with religious organizations which create social problems? It is possible to say that the basic quesiton of bureaucrats for students of religion is the following: what are the criteria of "totalitarianism" in the case of any sect? A difficult situation has arisen. On the one hand, a substantial part of society sees that Russia has been transformed into a through passageway and its cultural identity is threatened. On the other hand, the federal government is inactive and attempts to introduce amendmends into the existing law wither under harsh attacks. An enormous mass of state bureaucrats, educators, agents of the power structure, journalists, and even simple citizens have been drawn into a kind of spontaneous development. By the summer of 1996 more than fifteen component regions of the federation had adopted regional laws regulating the activity of foreign missions. In various ministries groups dealing with the problem of new religious movements have been formed. They are forced to deal with whatever materials they happen to find and they all understand that the state apparatus of a secular government cannot be guided uncritically by materials of anti-cult centers, yellow journalism articles, etc. Bureaucrats in the regions are waiting for a recreation of some form of the Council on Religious Affairs which will ease their task.

Meanwhile, the problem of criteria is not so complex. The Russian government simply should, on its own, structure the "confessional field" and legislatively fortify the "priority" of the religious confessions depending on how well they are established, their historical contribution, their participation in governmental construction, etc. And this should have nothing to do with legal privileges from pre-soviet times but should derive from the real situation that has emerged at the end of the twentieth century. The state cannot give support to everything that calls itself a "religious organization." Because the social and historic contributions are not equal. I emphasize that such a solution does not change the secular character of the state and it does not establish any religion as the state religion in the sense that this existed for Orthodoxy before the communists. This arrangement should reflect the new image of Russia as a democratic European country, where the rights of minorities are respected, although state priorities are selected. In the majority of European countries such an arrangement works successfully and does not contradict international humanitarian standards.

For example, Spanish legislation assigns all religious organizations to four lists (1--Catholic church, 2--historic confessions enjoying special state support, 3--more or less historical confessions, 4--religious organizations that are restricted because they "cause social difficulties"). Applied to Russia it appears that in the first list would be Orthodoxy and Islam (75% and 18% of the Russian believers respectively). The Russian state cannot be indifferent to coexistence with these two confessions; it is a matter of national security. Probably the so-called "traditional" religions usually named along with the first two, Buddhism and Judaism, cannot be in the first list if one takes into account modern Russian reality. Along with Russian Lutheranism, they probably would head the second list. Buddhism is historic to Russia, but it is entirely localized, within the borders of three component regions of the federation, and Judaism has basically emigrated to Israel, while Lutheranism suffered enormous losses as a result of the persecution of German society in Russia in the twentieth century. Undoubtedly the second list includes several concords of Old Believers. The Armenian church, Baptists, Pentecostals, and probably Dukhobors (it was quite right this year for the ministry to give to Russian Dukhobors in the mountain regions of Georgia humanitarian aid when they suffered natural disaster in the sphere of Russian influence) should be in the third list. Who else? This needs to be discussed. As regards the fourth list, information is needed from appropriate state services, primarily the ministery of internal affairs. This is the way things are, for example, in Germany, where scientology, Radi Krishnas, Brahma Kumaris, and a number of other associations are restricted.

The concrete enunciation of the four lists is a matter for public discussion and in the final analysis the will of legislators who are oriented to Russian priorities. As to the new legislation, the problem focuses on article 11 which characterizes several organizations as "foreign" and restricts their activity. There is disagreement over the category "foreign," as the head of the Russian Catholics, Archbishop Tadeus Kondruszevcz, vigorously points out. In reality, since they have an "administrative center" in Italy and are subordinate to the Holy See, Catholics formally fall under this definition, not only in Russia but everywhere. Of course, this is absurd. On the other hand, it is obvious that Mormons, as a specifically American religious body in history and mentality, have long ago been registered as a "Russian" organization, and there is no problem in this inasmuch as there always are dozens of Russian students who want, for example, to practice their English in the USA. And most important, this restriction of "foreign" organizations does not have much effect since there is no less concern about the destructive cults that are native products.

Amendments to the 1990 legislation have been swirling around the State Duma without any results since 1993 and this is understandable: any attempts to attach any amendments to the "American model" of the complete neutrality of the state toward confessions that the 1990 law entails are doomed to failure. They encounter strong and organized opposition of the "world public." A. Pchelintsev, one of the leading and very able experts in the area of religion and rights, who advocated the existing model and unconditionally opposes the solution suggested here, spoke recently in Novosibirsk strongly and approvingly of the efforts of the International Association of Religious Freedom (MARS) that doomed the adoption of amendments in 1993. In the area of religious studies it is well known that MARS now is conducting a broad-sweeping campaign against any amendments, conducting conferences, and publishing numerous brochures about "international" (read American) standards in the area of freedom of conscience. The leadership of the Russian Orthodox church in July 1996 withdrew its representatives from the Russian department of MARS.

Nowadays MARS is playing a disproportionate role in Russian politics. There is no doubt that the propaganda of religious freedom is essential; there must be public forces that attend to the observation of the rights of minorities. MARS should be thanked for its well- prepared conferences to which able western specialists come. There is nothing sinister about the fact that the activity of MARS in Russia is headed by Adventists, Baptists, and Mormons, so long, of course, as we understand clearly that all have their own interests and within certain limits they must be taken into account.

The problem is that MARS is everywhere. In just a few years this association has penetrated and gobbled up the entire Russian system of church-state relations. The leading experts of the State Duma are members of its Russian department, which twice a year conducts international conferences for students of religion at the Academy of State Service of the presidency of the RF (i.e., in essence, it has direct influence on the training of state officials). In September in Kiev the association financed a conference at which almost all of the ministers of religion and state officials on religious affairs of the "post-soviet" world gathered. Essentially, under the aegis of MARS it was decided to create a coordinating council of state officials of high rank. The producers of these conferences are rigidly oriented toward the propaganda of the "American model." I note that many of the participants of the Kiev conference seemed to have an easy skepticism; evidently MARS is advancing its own interests, i.e. with all its energies it is opposing the conception of a "national church" and "groups of dominant churches."

Support for a completely unstructured confessional space permits the maximum realization of goals of the small denominations and neo-Christian movements. The interests of MARS are clear. But the myopic position of those Russian leaders who support the ideology of MARS--insofar as it is a spontaneous game of interests in the unstructured confessional field, when de facto there are in Russia religions of the "first list," and de jure this is being ignored--will lead only to an increase in public difficulties.

In this context it is clear why a ministry of cults should not now be created. Precisely because the Russian government has not determined its priorities. If the ministry were to be created now, under conditions of the "American model," it would inevitably become primarily a mediator between the state and the small denominations and tiny religious movements. It is precisely these groups that need such an agency in order to demand the observance of the constitutional "equality of all religions." A ministry is necessary only after the confessional field is structured with the real interests of the state taken into account. It is clear that in questions of "cultural identity" the Russian state and its minister of cults cannot be guided by joint recommendations of American professors.

Instead of a ministry it would be good for a beginning to conduct a large conference on the subject "Russian priorities in the area of church-state relations." It will not be easy to organize it and achieving a united response would be still more difficult. It should be conducted under the aegis of an influential state organization. But who would undertake it? Healthy thinking runs away from the fear of seeming to be "antiwestern" and "antiliberal." However if a partner can be found, I can give assurance that there are Russian specialists and government officials who would be interested in such a conference. And I can guarantee that this would not be a matter of lobbying for the interests of one or another confession and denomination but an attempt really to work out proportions and priorities that take into account Russian historical perspectives.

translated by PDS

(C) Электронная версия "НГ" (ЭВНГ).
Номер 233 от 11 декабря 1996 года, среда.
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