Religious Liberty in Russia is Shrinking, Says Commission

( [email protected] ) Sep 22, 2004 10:51 PM EDT

Even though according to the Constitution religion is separated from the state, there is now a growing trend towards a closer connection between the Russian state authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), reported the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) in a recent statement.

The RLC, which functions under the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), reported that this tendency is “obviously not explained by a growing faith in Jesus Christ, as on the whole Russia still remains a godless state with most of population not believing in God and considering religion a cultural thing. It springs rather from a desire to see a strong state church supporting the government. Government representatives often participate in different activities of the Russian Orthodox Church and speak publicly in support of it.”

Recently, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov criticized the federal government at a meeting of leaders in Kursk region for failing to co-operate with religious organizations over social problems. “He sees unity between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church as the solution to problems like drug addiction,” RLC reported.

According to the Commission, Luzhkov said, “Together we are power, together we will win.”

Similar support for the Russian Orthodox Church can be seen in education. RLC reported that many more state schools are including Basics of Orthodox Culture in their curriculum. Although taking this subject is supposed to have the consent of the students and their parents, that requirement is mostly not even discussed. More universities are preparing 'theologians' and 'religion specialists', with an emphasis on Russian Orthodox history and doctrine. Often Russian Orthodox priests are teaching these students who will graduate to work in schools and government offices as specialists in religious issues. This leads to prejudicing them towards other Christians like Protestants or Catholics, RLC said.

In official reports, the media, and even in universities only Lutherans, Reformers and Anglicans tend to be regarded as Protestants, and others like Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians are labeled as sects. But sometimes the religion specialists and state officials can be so prejudiced that they publicly call even Catholics and Lutherans 'foreign sects'. (Three other so-called 'traditional' religions - Islam, Judaism and Buddhism - are recognized, but mostly within specified regions.)

In some regions of Russia, restrictions on missionary and evangelistic activities have been observed this year. This is of great concern because in Russian history non-Orthodox Christians were in most cases severely persecuted when the state supported the Russian Orthodox Church.

“During Communist times all believers were persecuted,” the RLC reported. “But now it seems with the Russian Orthodox Church once again becoming the only one officially recognized, non-Orthodox Christians are being restricted and may face real persecution in the near future.”

According to Voice of the Martyrs, religious freedom is a new concept in Russia. The country was the center of Communist power for the world for more than a generation. With the crumbling of the USSR in 1991, Russia adopted a constitution officially allowing freedom of religion. However, that freedom is not consistently respected across the country.