Catholics Ask for Role on Russian Council, Address ''Traditional Religion'' Concept

During a session held last week, the head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference appealed before Russia's president for enlargement of the Inter-religious Council of Russia
( [email protected] ) Oct 06, 2004 04:24 PM EDT

During a session held last week, the head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference appealed before Russia's president for enlargement of the Inter-religious Council of Russia, saying that for the dialogue to be fruitful it is necessary to invite representatives of other religions. The council, established in 1988, brings together Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. The body currently excludes Catholics and Protestants.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz made his proposal to a session of the Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organizations of the Russian Federation, held in the Kremlin last Wednesday, and presided over by Russian President Vladmir Putin.

According to Italy-based AsiaNews, the Catholic archbishop also addressed the question of the interpretation of the concept “traditional religion”—which the Russian preamble identifies Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism to be. Kondrusiewicz stated that discrimination does not promote the consolidation of society.

"The Catholic Church in Russia may be small, but she has always contributed to uniting society," the archbishop said, adding that Catholics "pray for victims of acts of terrorism and help" them.

Referring to the Catholic Church's aspirations to participate in society and in inter-religious dialogue, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz lamented that in some parts of the country the initiatives and activities undertaken by Catholics have been met with misunderstanding and hostility.

Finally, he thanked Putin for organizing the meeting, which had not been held over the past three years.

Although the Constitution does not present explicit privileges or advantages to "traditional religions," according to the International Religious Freedom Report released by the U.S. State Department last month, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Procurator, and other official agencies have reportedly conducted campaigns of harassment against Muslims, Roman Catholics, some Protestant groups, and newer religious movements. Religious groups and organizations faced investigations for purported criminal activity, landlords were pressured to renege on contracts, and in some cases the security services are thought to have influenced the Ministry of Justice (MOJ ) to reject registration applications.

According to the report, a view held by a number of government officials, particularly in the security services, is that foreign religious groups, particularly Muslims, but also Roman Catholics, some Protestant groups, and a number of religious groups relatively new to the country, constituted security threats that required greater monitoring and possibly greater control.

A complex 1997 law "On Freedom of Conscience and Associations," which evidently targeted so-called "totalitarian sects" or dangerous religious "cults," was also reported by the State Department as impairing religious groups new to the country, placing them with serious disadvantages. The report stated that the intent of some of the law's sponsors appeared to have been to discriminate against members of foreign and less well-known religions by making it difficult for them to establish religious organizations. For example, many officials in law enforcement and the legislative branches speak of the need to protect the "spiritual security" of the country by discouraging the growth of "sects" and "cults," usually understood to include Protestant and newer religious movements.

Human rights groups and religious minorities have criticized the Procurator General for encouraging legal action against some minority religions and for giving an imprimatur of authority to materials that are biased against them.

In March, a lawyer noted that the situation for Protestants in the country has been dramatically worsening for the last 4 years. A Pentecostal prayer center in Moscow Oblast was set on fire in February and similar incidents were reported in Chekhov, Balashikha, Tula, Lipetsk, and Nizhniy Tagil. Local law enforcement agencies have taken no actions in any of the cases.

On May 20, members of the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on human rights in Russia. Several members of Congress made statements urging Russia to respect human rights and religious freedom. Witnesses testified about patterns of abuse toward minority, especially Protestant, religions. On June 7, Helsinki Commission staff held a briefing by four Russian human rights advocates. When asked about the status of religious freedom, one replied that the situation is worsening and becoming harsh for all minority religions.