Friday, February 21, 2020

Russia’s Religious Divided on Idea of Establishing Ombudsman for Believers

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – Anatoly Pchelintsev, a member of the Presidential Council on Relations with Religious Groups, has touched off a sharp debate on what if any government structure should be created to manage relations between the state and religion with his call for the creation of an ombudsman to defend the rights of believers.

            Representatives of three of the four “traditional” Russian religions – Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism (the fourth from Buddhism weren’t asked) – are generally opposed to the notion, but Protestants, who aren’t in this charmed circle and who often have problems with the state, enthusiastically back it.

            The debate has ranged over the print and electronic media in Moscow during the past ten days. Aleksandr Slabiyev of the DailyStorm portal provides a convenient summary both of Pchelintsev’s proposal and the reactions of religious leaders (

            Pchelintsev says that such a position is needed for two reasons. On the one hand, there is currently no body that directly connects the state and the various religions. And on the other, one is needed to provide guidance and develop policies especially for those religious groups that are less well-known, including Protestants in the first instance.

            Oleg Goncharov, vice president of the Consultative Council of Heads of Protestant Churches of Russia, welcomes the idea given the increased attention the siloviki are devoting to these groups. He says that there re now “about 5,000 Protestant congregations registered with the justice ministry with a total membership of at least several hundred thousand Russians.

            Before 2014, he says, there were few problems arising from the interrelationship of Protestants and the Russian state, but since that time, the regime has moved more actively against the rapidly growing Protestant community. It is obvious that the Kremlin is “trying to drive the Protestants into a definite ghetto.”

            Goncharov says that he believes the attacks on Protestant groups in Russia arise from the deteriorating relationship between Moscow and the US since most Protestants in the Russian Federation have links with the Americans. Moscow wants to punish both and reduce American influence by going after churches inside the country.

            The Russian Orthodox Church is overwhelmingly opposed to Pchelintsev’s proposal, viewing it as opening the door to the restoration of tsarist or Soviet institutions designed to give the government control over religions. The ROC MP is far better off in the existing situation than it would be with an ombudsman, many of its hierarchs say.

            There are some exceptions to this pattern. Sergey Khudiyev, an Orthodox commentator, argues that an ombudsman could block the persecution of smaller religious groups. “I don’t like the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he says, but “I consider it incorrect when people are put behind bars exclusively for their religious activity.”

            At present, the ROC MP doesn’t need the services of such an official, but the time may come when it will – and preventing it from being established now could be a major mistake, Khudiyev adds.

            Russia’s Muslim leaders are divided.  Ravil haji Seyfetdinov, deputy mufti of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Russia says that Russia needs a state organ to oversee relations with the religious but that one man couldn’t do that job. He argues that there should be something like a ministry with all the faiths represented in it.

            Nafigulla Ashirov, a member of the presidium of the Council of Muftis of Russia (CMR), disagrees. He says that any notion that believers have special rights that need defending is “absurd.”  Indeed, the mufti adds, he finds it “difficult to imagine” just what those might in fact be.

            And Gershon Kogan, spokesman for the chief rabbi of Russia, says that the rights of believers are sometimes violated in Russia. The “traditional” faiths have fewer problems because they are better known, but smaller and newer groups do have problems and something should be done to address them.

            Just what form that should take, however, is very much an open question.

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