MOSCOW — THE Russian parliament has passed an amendment to the law on religion that bans foreign religious organizations and their representatives from missionary work, publishing, advertising, and recruitment of new members to their faiths.
The law has the backing of Russia's dominant faith, the Russian Orthodox Church. Representatives of many non-Orthodox Christian faiths have sharply criticized the law as a violation of religious freedoms and an attempt to enforce an Orthodox monopoly.
In an open letter appealing to Russian President Boris Yeltsin not to sign the law, Russian Protestant leaders warned it would lead to "gross violations of human rights and violations of religious freedoms, not only of foreign, but of Russian citizens." The church leaders warned that with this new law, "Russia takes the path of open struggle with pluralism of ideas and faiths."
Since the restrictions on religious belief that existed during the Communist era were lifted, foreign evangelists have been seeking converts to their faiths. But Russian parliament officials say their new law is aimed at curbing the activity of religious cults whose activities have been the target of legal action in other countries.
"We are just trying to put a stop to all this anarchy that is reigning in our country, when swindlers, criminals, adventurists, and fanatics come here and do what they want, and the state does not interfere," Rev. Vyacheslav Polosin, a Russian Orthodox priest and chairman of the parliament's Committee on Freedom of Conscience, told reporters on July 19.
The law does allow foreign clerics and religious organizations to preach and practice, but only after they are accredited by the Russian government and then establish themselves as local Russian churches. "The law does not allow foreign organizations to recruit new members into these foreign organizations," explains Rev. Polosin. "As for recruiting members into Russian religious organizations, there are no restrictions on that."
The law also does not specify any procedure for accreditation, leaving that to be determined by the government within two months. Rev. Polosin says the process will be impartial, but the Protestant churches worry it will be dictated by the Orthodox Church in a manner that will block their activity.
"One does not have to be a prophet to see that in the nearest future, the agency in charge of accrediting foreign representatives of religious organizations will be in the hands of those that would like to establish a monopoly of one ideology in Russia," their letter stated. "A logical result of adopting this law will be introduction of state censorship of religious literature published abroad and jamming mass media from abroad."
Patriarch Alexi II of Moscow and All Russia, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, issued a statement on July 15 fully supporting the law, passed July 14. While the Church favors the right of individuals to choose their faith, he said, "We Orthodox Christians are convinced that this choice should not be imposed from the outside."
The Russian spiritual leader has spoken out frequently against the influx of foreign missionaries, concerned they were using superior financial and other resources to take advantage of the spiritual vacuum that emerged after the collapse of communism. In a speech to a public meeting in Yaroslavl on May 11, Alexi II criticized the huge amounts of money spent by foreigners to rent stadiums and time on television to spread their message, pointing in particular to $365,000 that he said was spent last year to
advertise the appearances of American preacher Billy Graham in Moscow.
In a statement issued on July 19, the Russian Patriarch and the visiting Patriarch of Constantinople-New Rome, Patriarch Bartholomeo I, warned against the activity of supporters of the Uniate Church (affiliated with the Catholic Church) and "Protestant fundamentalist sects and pseudo-religious groups that are actively struggling against the Orthodox Church." They also said the Orthodox Church "should strengthen its unity in the face of the growing threat from all sorts of pseudo-Christian and actively in humane sects."