NEW CHALLENGES TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE COUNTRIES OF THE FORMER SOVIET UNION
By Sergey Rakhuba and Mikhail Cherenkov
Congressional Briefing on Religious Freedom Issues in Eurasia/Former Soviet Union
February 6, 2013
Washington, D. C.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Ronald Reagan
In the former Soviet Union, there seem to be several mutually exclusive processes at work with regard to freedom. There are a number of growing “freedoms,” yet existing freedoms are being strangled and limited.
The first type of “freedom” (freedom without limits, freedom without religion, and freedom for pseudo-religion) is being met with increasingly harsh criticism. However, few dare to criticize the second type of freedom (freedom for some at the expense of others, freedom for “historical” or “state” churches such as the Russian Orthodox Church at the expense of a decrease in freedom for “non-canonical” churches, such as traditional Protestant churches which are viewed as sects, or agents of the West).
Talk of defending “traditional values” is so charming to the hearer that trusting people want to destroy Charismatic, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches—along with liberals, Democrats, and Westerners. The new “Eurasian” challenges to religious freedom are obvious. Here are a few of them:
Ukraine is losing its status as a country with uniquely broad religious freedom.
A new law has been passed regarding freedom of conscience and religious organizations. President Victor Yanukovich signed law number 10221, which makes the registration of religious organizations more difficult and grants the right to widespread control by multiple authorities (the competency of whom is being determined, which means that this can be interpreted in favor of increased control). Heads of denominations and religious groups and experts were categorically opposed to this new law and asked the president to veto it. The defiant decision of the president is witness to the state’s practice of ignoring the position of churches and strengthening the controlling functions of the government, which fears the social influence of churches. Incidentally, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is protected from potential difficulties connected with the new legislation by the personal protection of the president.
The Russian Orthodox Church is demonstrating complete political integration with the current Kremlin regime.
The Constitutional principle of separation of church and state is being violated. The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys unique preferential treatment and political support, in turn providing loyalty from its lay people to the regime. The “punk prayer” by Pussy Riot in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow was the most significant event in the religio-political life of Russia in the last few years. The singers of the song “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” found themselves behind bars at the demand of the Patriarch, who remembered his loyalty to Putin well, while forgetting Christ’s command to forgive.
While harmony reigns between the government and the Orthodox church, Protestant churches in Russia and Ukraine are being destroyed.
Case study: Holy Trinity Evangelical Church, Moscow, Russia, Pastor Vasili Romanyuk
In late September 2012, government authorities used force to demolish this Pentecostal church in Moscow during the night. When Vasili Romanyuk, pastor of the church, then gathered with church members in the ruins of the church to pray, he was taken into custody and questioned. Earlier in the month, sound equipment worth more than $3,000 and other property was stolen from the church. Subsequent appeals have failed to produce any results. Moreover, there has not been any official explanation or comment on this matter by authorities.
Case study: Independent Baptist Church, Vyatskiye Polyany, Russia, Pastor Aleksandr Dresvyannikov
In Vyatskiye Polyany, Russia, Aleksandr Dresvyannikov, a pastor of an independent Baptist church and father of nine children, has experienced continuous persecution as a result of the cooperation between local authorities and local Orthodox leaders in this region. Dresvyannikov reports that he began feeling pressure from both sides as soon as he began working at his church more than five years ago. During this time, he has received threats to close his church and stop his work with orphans, needy children, poor families, based on fabricated charges such as building code violations, theft of property, etc. Dresvyannikov has repeatedly been summoned for interrogations by the department against religious extremism as well as by the criminal investigation department. Most recently, a police officer unexpectedly visited his home, demanding the names of all the members of his family who live with him. Pastor Dresvyannikov fears that a criminal case is being built against him based on false charges.
In the Donetsk region of Ukraine, three Protestant churches were burned in October 2012. Local authorities referred to these churches as “sectarian” churches and questioned why any of the state’s funds and efforts should be spent on finding the culprits. As a result, the culprits were not found, and the press was almost completely silent.
As these case studies demonstrate, society is being taught by force that there is only one true Church—the Russian Orthodox Church, and all others are spies, agents, schismatics, and sects. In addition, re-establishing Russia’s influence throughout the world, which is know as “Russian World” («Русский Мир») has become the central initiative of some Russian nationals who want to restore Holy Rus.
A new religious structure is forming in the countries of the former Soviet Union: traditional, titular, “state” religions, and non-canonical, marginal sects. The discriminatory, abusive, and artificial character of this division is obvious.
Case Study: Greater Grace Church, Baku, Azerbaijan
On April 25, 2012, a court in Baku, Azerbaijan, ruled to liquidate the Greater Grace Church, which had been legally registered since 1993, because it failed to satisfy a law requiring re-registration. The reasons for the denial were never explained. The church appealed the decision, but on July 31, 2012, the court of appeals upheld the earlier decision of the lower court to liquidate Greater Grace Church, and all the church’s activities were deemed illegal. Pastor Fuad believes that the judge’s decision was forced and he already plans to appeal to the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan and to the European Court on Human Rights, if necessary.
Case Study: New Life Pentecostal Church, Minsk, Belarus
On November 27, 2012, local authorities in Minsk, Belarus, served the New Life Pentecostal Church with an order to vacate their facility and hand over the keys by December 5, 2012. Court executor Olga Shcherbovich refused to discuss the situation. Members of the church wrote letters appealing to the Belarusian Council of Ministers and the President, and began a 24-hour-a-day prayer vigil. Support from other churches, ministries and human rights groups from around the world began pouring in. Under pressure from many of these international groups, on December 4, 2012—the day before the court decision—the pastor of the church received a note that the Belarusian government had spared the church this time, and had canceled the court session scheduled for the following day.
Not only the Russian Orthodox Church but also Islam is vying for the role of titular religion. The Islamization of Central Asian countries and some regions of Russia is entering an aggressive phase. In many regions it is not secular legislation or the constitution, but a system of Islamic law that is, de facto, in power. In areas of strong Islamic influence the government cannot maintain legal order. As a result there is violence against Christian leaders from the part of extremist groups (Dagestan), or the government increases pressure on Christians in order to appease Muslims (Central Asia).
Case Study: Kyrgyzstan: New Punishments Proposed for Religious Activities
Amendments to the current restrictive Religion Law in Kyrgyzstan have been proposed by the State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA) and the National Security Committee (NSC) secret police that would widen the punishment for religious activities in Kyrgzystan. These amendments impose fines for an increased number of violations ranging from conducting unregistered religious activity, establishing religious groups for young people, proselytism, and forcing children to participate in religious activity. According to Justice Minister Almambet Shikhmamatov, these new articles would “allow the state to ensure fully the controlling functions and secure the protection of the individual and society from illegal activities by religious organizations and individual people.” According to Galina Kolodzinskaiya, member of the Inter-religious Council in the Kyrgyz Republic, religious leaders are “very worried about the amendments.” She believes that they will be used “as a way for the authorities to collect money from religious communities.” Kolodzinskaia added that Council members plan to voice their opposition to government officials over these amendments. (Source: Forum 18 News Service, 8 January, 2013).
Case Study: Protestant Pastor and Prisoner of Conscience, Dmitry Shestakov, Uzbekistan
In 2007, Dmitry Shestakov, pastor of the officially registered Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Andijan, Uzbekistan, was sentenced to four years exile in an open work camp within Uzbekistan for his religious activity. Shestakov maintained his innocence throughout the trial. During his final speech, he told the court that, despite the tears of his wife and children, he forgives those who have taken action against him. Later that year, after twice being punished in the isolation cell in his open workcamp near Tashkent, Shestakov was transferred to a harsher labor camp to serve the rest of his
In 2011 Dmitry Shestakov was released from a four-year jail sentence, but continued to be placed by Uzbekistan under the severe restrictions of ‘administrative supervision’. He was not able to leave his home town without written police permission, and he couldn’t visit public places such as restaurants. In 2012, administrative supervision was extended until 2015, and the punishment for breaking the supervision regime ranges up to four years imprisonment. Needless to say, Shestakov is very concerned about his situation and the well-being of his family.
The above-mentioned challenges testify to the fact that Christian churches and religious organizations in the former Soviet Union are caught between two threatening tendencies—on the one hand, there is boundless freedom and the legalization of everything (the European trend), while on the other hand, there is limitation of freedoms on the pretext of defending traditional values and the special role of historical confessions (the Eurasian trend). All of this forces us to reconsider the key question of the relationship between Constitutional rights and freedoms and their religious understandings. If the European trend prioritizes secular rights, the Eurasian approach puts religious understandings above the letter of the law. Therefore “Teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church on Freedom and Human Rights” (2008) appeals not to the authority of the law, but to the authority of religious tradition. Therefore, there is a conflict between the secular and religious understandings of rights and freedoms. It is apparent that, in order to solve this question, we need more theological work and wider inter-church discussion.
We are so grateful to the US Congress, specifically the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Honorable Joe Pitts, for their support of this important event that was organized to: 1) create awareness about the sharp rise in religious persecution in Eurasia; 2) analyze this situation on an international platform with the expert involvement of other organizations; 3) create policies and initiate processes that will encourage the government and religious structures to defend the right to freely worship God.
On behalf of those who live in Eurasia, and struggle to exercise religious freedom because of authoritarian, religious or nationalistic oppression, Russian Ministries and its partners are committed to train and equip the Next Generation of leaders for the church and society—those who will not just consider freedom as a traditional value but will defend freedom of worship as an absolute right for every person.
“Let each live by his own convictions and worship his own God.”
Sergey Rakhuba and Mikhail Cherenkov
P.O. Box 496
Wheaton, IL 60187