Russia's antireligious ways

Can Russia achieve closer political and economic ties with the West while refusing equal rights for religious minorities? It seems the answer is yes.

In a scenario that would have been inconceivable before world attention became riveted on terrorism last September, the Kremlin is defying two of the world's leading religious figures but hearing only mild protest from Washington.

Apparently emboldened by the lack of foreign pressure, Russian officials have stepped up their crackdown on Roman Catholic clergy. Just last weekthey kicked two parish priests out of the country, bringing to five the number of Catholic clergy expelled just since April – in spite of a personal plea from Pope John Paul II to President Vladimir Putin.

In late August, Russia denied permission for the world's most prominent Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, to visit traditionally Buddhist provinces – apparently under pressure from China, which views the Tibetan leader solely as a political figure.

The charm offensive Mr. Putin pursued with the Vatican during his first two years in office seems a distant memory – as does the pope's hope of ever visiting Russia. In May, a few weeks after Moscow airport police barred a Catholic bishop from returning to his eastern Siberia diocese, providing no official explanation, the pope wrote personally to Mr. Putin. But the president's reply – three months later – gave no grounds for hope, a Vatican official recently told Keston News Service, a religious rights monitor.

Within weeks of the bishop's expulsion, President Bush visited Russia and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters he'd get "the chance to witness firsthand the right to freedom of worship, which is now thriving in Russia."

Moscow hard-liners must have taken encouragement from her words: In August, they reversed the permission they'd already granted for the Dalai Lama to visit.

Putin has evidently concluded that his cooperation in the US war on Islamic terrorists has given Russia more leeway than at any time since the Soviet era to repress religious minorities. He's accelerating a trend that began in 1994, when Russia's provinces began enacting local laws restricting missionary activities. In 1997 Boris Yeltsin signed legislation explicitly denying freedom of speech to religious bodies founded since the reforms of the late 1980s – thus discriminating in favor of those that had collaborated with the Soviet regime. That law has not been strictly enforced, so far, thanks largely to pressure from the West. But that pressure seems to have vanished.

Russia's president is not simply a tool of the reactionaries. He's proved willing to defy them and support reforms such as privatizing land ownership. And in religious policy, Putin – who cultivates the image of a practicing Orthodox Christian – has kept at arm's length those who want to replace Marxismwith an ultranationalistic form of Orthodox Christianity as compulsory state ideology.

But Putin, no doubt influenced by his KGB training, is instinctively hostile to truly independent religious activity. For the Orthodox as for Baptists or Buddhists, he actively favors those leaders who can most easily be monitored and controlled by Moscow.

The new wave of repression owes less to the servile Orthodox Patriarch Aleksithan to the secular statists within Putin's inner circle. To be sure, religious believers of all faiths enjoy far more freedom than they did under the Soviet regime, which didn't hesitate to arrest people simply for hosting Christian study groups in their homes. Such private meetings can now be held without fear of reprisal. But preaching in public is different. Religious groups without good political connections, such as the resolutely independent initsiativniki Baptists, are more and more often suffering police harassment simply for distributing religious tracts.

Keston News Serviceestimates that Russian officials have denied visas to 19 Western Protestant missionaries, mostly Americans, usually without explanation. One of these, Jeff Wollman, an American, told Keston "the hardest part is not knowing why" he and his family were suddenly denied permission last month to return – after a trip abroad – to their home and ministry in Kostroma, 200 miles northeast of Moscow. He says they had excellent relations with local officials and with two priests of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The self-disciplined Putin is more adept than Yeltsin at telling people what they want to hear. Recently he declared, "We must not tell religious figures what to do, whom to choose, and how to form associations." But this is the same Putin who within days of taking office in 2000 issued a policy directive declaring foreign missionaries to be threats to Russia's national security.

If we in the West want to help Russia become truly free, we need to make it clear that we will judge the Kremlin not just by its reassuring words, but by its deeds.

• Lawrence Uzzell is director of the Keston Institute, a research center based in Oxford, England, which studies religious life in the former Soviet Union.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Russia's antireligious ways
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today