Saturday, October 26, 2019

Threats to Freedom of Conscience in Russia Growing but Remain on ‘Periphery of Social Consciousness,’ Verkhovsky Says

Paul Goble
            Staunton, October 23 – An ever-growing number of Russians understand that freedom of conscience, “the first freedom,” is “under serious threat” in Putin’s Russia, Aleksandr Verkhovsky says. But most Orthodox Christians and unbelievers are not among this group; and so “problems of freedom of conscience remain on the periphery of social consciousness.”

            In an important new article, the director of the SOVA Information-Analytic Center explains how the threat to the freedom of conscience in Russia arose in the 1990s and why because of this history, many Protestant and Muslim groups may be among the next targets of persecution by the state (
            Verkhovsky notes that “after the total ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, representatives of the authorities said that they were banning an organization not a faith and that no one would interfere with people practicing their religion. But in practice, any assembly of believers is treated as a continuation of the activity of the organization and is subject to prosecution.”

            The reasons for this outcome lie in the 1990s, the SOVA head says. “Already then, when political freedoms were on the whole in order, here and there, ‘sectarians were persecuted.’ Many reasons were given but already then the idea was popular that religious innovations are dangerous.”

            Given the appearance of so many new groups at that time, Verkhovsky continues, it appeared to many Russians that innovations were about to overwhelm them and that many of these new notions would open the way to criminal activity or totalitarian control of the followers of these new groups.

“In part,” such actions were “ordinary religious xenophobia on the part of officials;” and they were generally directed not at individuals but at organizations.  “Of course, religious minorities suffered and sometimes fought back, but more often they suffered in silence and attempted to adapt, many successfully” and remained within the legal field.

Around the turn of the century, however, “fear of religious innovations was combined with fear of radical Islam, which then also was something new in the religious plane.” And that led to the notion of “’religious extremism’” which soon became a catchall for “all threats connected with religion” from the point of view of the population and the powers that be.

The Russian authorities never officially confirmed this as doctrine, “but in practice, already in the second half of the first decade of the 2000s, it was fully manifest in the application of anti-extremist legislation.”  There were lots of problems with such laws in general, but with regard to religion, there were two additional ones that have come to matter enormously.

On the one hand, most religious texts used in Russia were written before modern ideas of tolerance arose and contained open expressions of hostility to other faiths; and nearly all of these texts were translated into Russian leading to a desire to suppress them because of their violation of the anti-extremism laws.

“Even Putin here has proved powerless: he introduced an amendment “prohibiting the prohibition of the Bible but all the same it was prohibited in the translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Verkhovsky observes.

And on the other, he continues, the Russian Constitution prohibits any assertion of the superiority of one religion over another, but almost all religions because they are based on the proposition that they are true get into trouble because if they are true then other faiths must not be, at least not to the same degree.  That opens the way to legal prosecution in Russia. 

Together, these legal principles lead to the prosecution and persecution of believers for their beliefs, Verhovsky argues.  “One must understand that more than a hundred thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses are now under threat of criminal prosecution only on the basis that their publications assert the religious superiority” of their faith over others.

The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has received the most attention, but other groups have been persecuted as well, including the Nursiites in Islam and various marginal groups some of which have been persecuted even after they have ceased to exist. All of this is worrisome or should be, Verkhovsky says.

“On the basis of the example of the Nursiites, all active Muslims understand what can happen with them depending on how relations develop between this or that mufti and the authorities; and the example of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is understood in the same way by Russian Protestants.”

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