Why Russia Restricts Religions
An Orthodox Russian explains the protectionist attitude in the post-Soviet religious marketplace
As the plane landed over the western Siberian city of Syktyvkar, I saw a red brick cathedral with a giant, shining, gold dome dominating the drab skyline. I was inspired, feeling that it's not only in Moscow that Orthodox church domes are rising as symbols of Russia's return to its faith.Skip to next paragraph
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But I was mistaken.
Syktyvkar's new Russian Orthodox diocese is headquartered in a much smaller church on the outskirts. The Orthodox cathedral in the central square was razed by Bolsheviks, and the church has just received from the government its fifth small, dilapidated place of worship in town.
And what about the new red-brick, gold-domed wonder? It's a Baptist church.
How many gold-domed Baptist churches are there in the world? The philosophy behind such an unusual architectural decision is easy to guess.
Gold-domed churches are what real churches are supposed to look like to people of the Orthodox culture. This Baptist church is deliberately confusing to the spiritually hungry and ideologically disoriented people of post-communist Russia, where visible forms of religious life were nearly completely uprooted during decades of state-sponsored atheism.
The majority of people in this region are of Orthodox Christian descent. By building a church so clearly designed to attract people of the Orthodox culture - and even naming it "Christ the Savior Cathedral," after a famous Orthodox church in Moscow - local evangelicals and their German and Finnish sponsors inspire the feeling among Orthodox Christians that they are trying to steal the souls of Russians whose destiny, but for a 70-year communist detour, would have been the Orthodox Church.
And that would seem fair in a situation where the competition of various faiths has been a tradition.
Limiting the competition is fair
But in Russia, the history of the Orthodox Church is inseparable from the history of the Russian culture. From the predominant Orthodox perspective, the future of Russia should include the return of the millions taken away from the mother church by the communist persecution.
That ideology is behind Russia's new law on religion - adopted against the protests of the West, but overwhelmingly passed by the parliament and signed by President Boris Yeltsin.
The law, inspired by just the kind of "nontraditional" influence seen in Syktyvkar, aims to protect the Orthodox Church by limiting its competition.
While stating that individuals have full freedom to choose a religion, the law sets up a two-tiered system of religious organizations.
New religious "groups" would be on a 15-year probation, during which their institutional rights would be limited. After 15 years they could apply for the status of "organization," which would permit them full rights of property, publishing, education, and access to public institutions.
The law says much about Russia's post-communist search for identity. Critics of the law call it discriminatory and antidemocratic: That is, it doesn't correspond to liberal Western, namely American, norms.
The new law is, indeed, a step away from Western liberalism, which triumphantly arrived here in an American wrapping in the early 1990s and was imitated in every field of public life.
Russia's 1990 law on religion introduced freedom of conscience in its American form of complete separation of church and state and full equality of all religious groups. It was a radical departure from state atheism and strict government control of the few religions allowed a limited existence in the Soviet era.
But that sudden transplantation of religious freedom was a shock. The Russian Orthodox Church, handicapped by decades of persecution, was tragically unprepared.
As the only public institution predating communism, the church is seen, even by many nonbelievers, as a key symbol of national identity.
But turning millions of largely atheist Russians into pious, churchgoing Christians overnight is a miracle the church has been slow to perform. Imagine the fear and indignation of the troubled Orthodox Church when foreign missionaries of all possible kinds flooded into Russia in the early 1990s aiming, with the backing of their richer western churches and the more sophisticated selling techniques of their market economies, to "convert the godless Russia."