Staunton, October 27 – A registered religious community can engage in missionary activity beyond the limits of the city or village in which it is located but not beyond the borders of the federal subject, according to a new ruling of Russia’s Constitutional Court (sova-center.ru/religion/news/authorities/legal-regulation/2019/10/d41635/).
The decision came in response to an appeal by the Reconciliation Center of the Evangelical Baptists in Mari El which had been fined for distributing materials 100 kilometers beyond the city in which the center is registered. The curt said that the center for free to do so as long as it does not go beyond the borders of that federal subject.
Missionary activity is one of the most sensitive religious issues in Russia. The four major traditional religions of Russia have generally restrained from engaging in it against each other’s communities, but Protestant groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have not and have often been subject to legal penalties as a result.
On the one hand, this decision will likely mean that fewer religious groups that engage in missionary activity close to home will be subject to fines and other penalties. But on the other, it still leaves in place rules which contradict the guarantees of the Russian Constitution and thus will not end disputes about missionary work.
One consequence of this decision will be a change in the balance between federal and reginal law enforcement, with the latter now assuming an even greater role in controlling religious activities of this kind because the main issue would now seem to be whether a group is acting within or outside its federal subject.
But the decision also has the effect of freezing the existing distribution of religions, in effect bringing the Russian Orthodox Church’s ideas about canonical territory inside the country and applying it to other faiths as well. That is because unless a religious group is registered in a particular territory, it can’t engage in missionary work there.
That will limit the activities of Protestant groups, the most rapidly growig segment of religious life in Russia, most severely; but it will also mean that Muslims will also be restricted in places where no Islamic groups are registered. The ROC MP, in contrast, which has churches in all federal districts will not be limited and thus could benefit in contrast.