Staunton, July 6 – The anti-missionary provisions of the Yarovaya-Ozerov legislation have attracted widespread attention and criticism, but two leading experts say that it is important to remember that many Russian regions began adopting even more stringent and restrictive laws against missionary activity more than a decade ago.
Vera Klyuyeva, a senior researcher at the Moscow Institute of Problems of the Exploration of the North, and Yevgeny Shestakov, a lawyer at the SOVA Center, say that “the practice of restricting missionary activity began not at the moment of the development of this legislation” but farther has been “unceasing over the course of the entire post-Soviet period” (sova-center.ru/religion/publications/2016/07/d34968/).
Their arguments and conclusions are important even for those who do not focus on the issues involved in missionary work because they point to the ways in which repressive measures can emerge typically out of sight in the Russian Federation in the periphery and then become the basis for the adoption of repressive acts by Moscow.
Regional laws “about missionary activity,” the two experts say, exist in Belgorod, Smolensk, Pskov, Voronezh, Kostroma, Nizhne-Novogorod, Kursk, and Arkhangelsk oblast and in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. Twenty other regions have considered such laws but either failed to pass them or have later reversed them, Klyuyeva and Shestakov say.
Such legislation began to appear “in the early 2000s, but the last such law was adopted” on last month. Some regions had adopted similar laws in the early 1990s, but these were in almost every case supplanted by the all-Russian 1997 law “on freedom of conscience and religious organizations.”
But shortcomings and “contradictions” in that Russian law over time re-opened the issue for regional governments to act in this area. And their actions, over the last 15 years, have been truly frightening to anyone concerned about the constitutional rights and freedoms of Russian believers in particular and Russian citizens in general.
“What specifically is written in these laws,” the two ask rhetorically. Given that in the sphere of religious law, “it is difficult to think up something new … all the local laws resemble one another” and revive restrictions on religious activity that are very much like those of the Soviet period.
Perhaps their most unfortunate provisions are those that make it impossible to distinguish “missionary activity” from “all other kinds of religious activity,” a failure that opens the way for the powers that be to oppress not just missionaries but all religious activities if they decide to do that.
Another common feature of these laws, the two say, concerns their ban on missionary activity directed at minors unless the missionaries have written permission from the parents of those they seek to communicate with. That raises a whole host of difficult questions, Klyuyeva and Shestakov say.
“How is one to consider Orthodox or Catholic baptism carried out among infants or the rite of circumcision among Muslims and Jews? Is this not the spreading of religious faith and religious practice? Does it not recall the Soviet practice when officials visited the place of work of parents to conduct explanatory work when they had evidence that a child had been baptized?”
Or, the two ask, under the terms of this wave of regional legislation, “is a child to be considered a priori a believer?”
There have been efforts to have these regional laws declared unconstitutional, Klyuyeva and Shestakov say, but generally they have been unsuccessful. Now, some of those seeking such a decision have turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. But no decision on this regional legislation has yet been rendered.
“On the whole,” the two experts conclude, “the adoption of various regional legislative acts which seek to ‘resolve’ the gaps in federal legislation and in a number of cases to supplant it is leading only to additional tensions between citizens and religious organizations.” And that in turn means that the Russian Federation is violating “the basic rights and freedoms” of its citizens.