Repressive Religion Law Has Russian Faithful on Edge

With the collapse of Communist rule in Russia, some thought the days were gone when officials could interrogate private citizens about their religious beliefs.

Residents of Tuim in southwestern Siberia know better. To be a Lutheran there means to risk having the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) - the renamed but not reformed KGB - knock on your door and pressure you to change your mind.

In late 1996 an FSB officer visited the Rev. Pavel Zayakin, pastor of Tuim's two-year-old Lutheran missionary parish, and invited him to become an informer on his own congregation. Mr. Zayakin refused, and ever since he and his parish have been in trouble.

Their chief enemy, the provincial government's official adviser for church-state relations, has personally told the pastor that he is determined to close the parish and has redoubled his efforts since enactment of a repressive national law on religion last September. Zayakin and his small congregation have won the first two rounds in a court battle, but are still being harassed by local prosecutors.

Six months after Russia's new law formally took effect, the worst fears of its opponents have not been realized. The country has not yet seen a sharp turn toward systematic, nationwide persecution, but it clearly has less religious freedom today than in September.

The overall pattern is best summarized as a slight acceleration in a negative trend that began about four years ago, long before the law was passed. More and more Protestant congregations are finding themselves abruptly, arbitrarily barred from renting rooms in recreation halls and other state-owned buildings, which in many towns are the only places suitable for any kind of public meeting. But if the new law were being literally enforced as written, the situation would be far more repressive. As my Russian friends are fond of saying, "The salvation of Russia is the poor enforcement of bad laws."

The law is a sword of Damocles hanging over Russia's religious minorities. It could drop tomorrow, a year from now, or never. One reason it has not dropped yet is that the Ministry of Justice waited until mid-March to issue the formal regulations needed to implement the law's system for registering churches under three newly created categories, the lowest two of which are deprived of such basic freedoms as the right to distribute religious literature. Compared with what Russian government spokesmen have been telling western diplomats and journalists, these regulations are a serious disappointment. For example, they fail to codify the spokesmen's repeated informal assertions that churches that existed underground 15 years ago will have the same rights as those that had official registration under the unreformed, pre-Gorbachev Soviet state. The regulations give officials all the tools needed to launch a new wave of repression in the future.

Nikolai Volkov, the provincial bureaucrat now hounding the Lutherans, has rich experience in such matters. Like many of his colleagues in other provinces, he is a veteran of the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs which specialized in suppressing religious life.

When asked in a January radio interview where the "nontraditional religions" allegedly now threatening Russia had come from, he replied "America - a sewage ditch - when it was created all sorts of rabble thronged there, and Protestantism and all sorts of nontraditional religions arose there. These things came here from there."

Mr. Volkov studied history at the prestigious Tomsk University and surely knows that Protestantism originated in Europe, not America.

But he also knows that whipping up anti-American sentiment is more popular today than explicitly invoking the Communist ideology that he loyally served a decade ago.

Contrary to his rhetoric, one of his reasons for targeting the Lutheran parish is precisely that it is too Russian.

When he and Zayakin first met two years ago, he encouraged the pastor to work only among citizens of German descent. Instead, the missionary - himself an ethnic Russian - has built a parish which is mostly Slavic, reflecting the ethnic makeup of the province as a whole.

Such competition to the dominant Orthodox Church is just what Volkov wants to suppress. Using the broad powers granted by the new law, he and his like-minded colleagues are in effect trying to repeal the religious-freedom provisions of Russia's 1993 Constitution. They may well succeed.

* Lawrence A. Uzzell is Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, a research center based in Oxford, England, which studies religious life in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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