By Sergei Zavgorodny
Editor’s preface: A decree passed by the Russian Parliament last summer restricts activities of western ministries in Russia. Yeltsin, though opposing the Supreme Council, did not veto this decree. The law is now valid, yet only arbitrarily enforced. The following article is a scenario of what could take place. A totalitarian system could be bred in Russia – not by atheistic communism – but by the Russian Orthodox Church working hand in hand with tyrants as she did in the time of the czars. Americans are implored by the staff of the Russian language Forerunner, Predvestnik, to pray for the reformation of Russia that religious liberty, which is a part of Yeltsin’s proposed constitution, will take hold of this great nation.
KIEV, Ukraine (FR) – Of all the republics of the former Soviet Union, Russia being its successor has remained not only economically and politically the strongest state, but also a kind of “pacesetter” in democratic reformation. Any law ratified by the Russian government inevitably evokes a response in other republics. The deep crisis of the Russian legislature makes the situation more complicated. How should one consider decrees and laws ratified by the Parliament that has been dissolved? The more so, as many of them are contrary to standards of international law signed by Russian officials.
One instance of the kind is an amendment of the 14th article of Russia’s law “On Religious Freedom” that was ratified on July 14, 1993 after a long and difficult discussion at the Supreme Council (Soviet) of the Russian Federation. Debates flared up that polarized the parliament into extreme positions. Resolute opponents, as well as most ardent supporters of the amendment, well understood that this step would mean a turn from the straight path of reforming the totalitarian system to narrow and dirty ways of bureaucratic pettifoggery and willfulness. But “the interests of the state” that masked a violation of the law turned out have more value – after all, which parliamentarian desires to be put forward for public view as a person not concerned about the interests of the state?
So what is the ratified amendment all about? According to the new version of the law, a person that does not possess a Russian citizenship has no right to be involved in activities of religion, missions, publicity and propaganda in Russia. Other activities, such as acts of charity, will be permitted by an authorized committee that will give exclusive permission for particular activities. Documents to regulate a work of the committee must be prepared by the Russian government. According to the amendment, any activity that is to be permitted must correspond to “the interests of the State” and “the harmony of the society.” What kind of “harmony” this must be so that religious activities may meet “the interests of the State” is not known. It might only be clear to those registered religious organizations which are now applying for the right to participate in activities in Russia.
Before voting, copies of a letter by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and Entire Russia Alexiy II were distributed among parliamentarians. It read: “On behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church to which most Russians belong, I testify that the suggested updates and additions fully meet the hopes and necessities of the Orthodox clergy and lay people.”
The patriarch expressed the hope that the parliament would decide to “put in order the activities of foreign religious organizations in Russia,” and stated that “a person’s choice between a religion must not be imposed from outside.”
Thus the head of the Russian Orthodox Church made it clear that they desire to gain a dominate position among other denominations which would be sealed by law, in spite of the fact that over one-third of all Christians (about 15 percent of the population) are not Russian Orthodox and people professing other religions make up about 10 percent of the population of the country.
The Russian Orthodox Church appears to want to cut the ground out from under the feet of her competitors. It becomes still more obvious as militant “defenders of the Orthodox faith” expressed their delight in having the amendment ratified by explicit and artless words. For example, when speaking on the Hour of Parliament TV program, the Chief of the Foreign Policy Department of the Russian Orthodox Church, metropolitan Cyril stated that the activities of Catholic and Protestant denominations should have been restricted a long time ago and that the law should have dealt even more strongly with these other religious groups.
What some frivolous politicians and zealots of the Orthodox Church were calling for in their speeches and sermons is a reality now. All activities of foreign missionary organizations are legally banned. All denominations other than the Russian Orthodox Church may encounter difficulties in their activities. The only exception to this, ironically, is Islam. Muslim clergy supported the legislators in ratifying the new decree. The reason for this is a slowdown of Islam’s spread and a great work being promoted by Protestant churches in Middle Asia, most of them begun by various foreign ministries and churches. The Islamic sects of Russia, unlike the Russian Orthodox Church which has branched out internationally and trains ministers intensively, traditionally rests on internal religious structures.
All denominations that closely collaborate with foreign missionaries are going to have considerable difficulties in making contacts. For example, the Roman Catholic Church of Russia, being led from the Vatican, is not able to receive ordained ministers from abroad. This is a hindrance since there are very few seminaries in Russia which train Catholic priests.
Protestantism in Russia, which is traditionally oriented toward ministries abroad, will have a difficult time. Most Protestant churches (especially young ones) may simply expire when no help comes from sister churches in the West. In today’s difficult economy, churches are not virtually able to meet their financial needs by themselves because of inflation and a falling standard of living. Most church members receive financial aid from their churches. This type of charity would soon fade. It would become impossible to free leaders from being otherwise employed. This would restrict the amount of ministry time of a pastor. In addition, many Christians are working in offices created by foreign ministries and churches, which gives them an opportunity to give more time to the work of ministry. Closing these offices would force workers to seek employment elsewhere.
Most Protestant churches conduct evangelism together with representatives of sister churches in the West, who provide cars, musical instruments and management skill. Of course, an absence of this kind of aid will not bring the work of the Church to an end, but will considerably hinder them. The most detrimental factor would be the lack of experienced people from the West who would help with organizing both technical and spiritual aspects of these activities.
Christian literature is also in a rather complex situation. Now the Orthodox Church actually possesses a monopoly on the printing of “must” literature – New Testaments and Bibles. And most of such literature came to Protestant churches from abroad or was printed by foreign missionaries in Russia. The one significant exception is the Protestant Publishing House, an indigenous organization in Moscow run by Baptist businessmen and pastors. But one publishing house will not be able to supply all of Russia with needed Christian literature. For example, one of the largest ministries that specialized in printing and distributing Christian literature (and especially New Testaments), Terry Law Ministries, which has printed and distributed millions of pieces of Christian literature free of charge in the former USSR, now has no chance to print in Moscow as it used to in the past. Obviously, Belorus and Ukraine will become the main publishing centers soon, which will cause an expenditure on shipping to remote parts of Russia to rise.
And yet the most serious problem Protestant churches will have to encounter is that a great many churches which have been started with the aid of western ministries will have no chance to invite pastors and teachers of sister churches. This may breed various kinds of heretical teachings and delusion.
Among other religions, Judaism, which also depends on aid from Jewish communities in the West, has been injured the most. Virtually all ministers in synagogues are foreign citizens.
Of course, the attempt of any church to fence her flock off from various false teachings and heresies is understandable and good. But when a rivalry between certain denominations becomes more like an attempted genocide, being accomplished by the laws of the state, the situation becomes graver. In spite of the fact that the amendment was intended to restrict activities that could damage people physically and mentally, almost nothing has been done in this area. Rather, the state has begun to view harmless religious groups as cruel cults, such as Hasidism and an American Baptist preacher who had come to help with teaching ministers of local churches. Yet the amendment offers no resistance to national religious cults which are genuinely harmful to the health and mentality of the population, such as the “White Brethren.” (See related article on page .)
Denominations other than the Russian Orthodox Church are at the mercy of an army of bureaucratic officials who have an officially given right “to punish or grant pardon.” And the Orthodox Church will surely exert pressure on their decisions. Censorship will probably appear in mass media under a vague formula of “the interests of the State and the harmony of the society.” Then it would be only one more step towards the persecution of those who belong to rival denominations, which would undoubtedly increase the number of emigrants from Russia.
Thus Russia, with her parliament as a mouthpiece, indirectly proclaimed the Orthodox Church as the established religion, which is to officially replace the teachings of Marx and Lenin. As a Moscow journalist put it: “Russia is not a secular state anymore.” When a state violates its separate status sealed by its constitution and, contrary to the law, marks out a particular denomination, most common as it is, not only liberty of conscience, but also every right and freedom of man is in jeopardy.
This is the time for the alarm to be sounded. If the West wants to help Russia and other states with their economies, then it must sure they are willing to maintain democracy. Otherwise it may breed another totalitarian system.
Totalitarian trends are usually seen in countries that suffer from economic and political instability. People try to unify everything in the hope that it will bring stability. But this will not help; when freedoms are violated, government must be opposed and protested against. As a partner and assistant, the West must explain this to the former USSR.
Editor’s postscript: Since the Russian language Forerunner is an indigenous publication published in Kiev, Ukraine, now an independent nation, the Russian law has little bearing on their activities. However, we urge you to pray for continued freedom for the printed word to go forth from Ukraine.