Putin shows mixed signals on religion policy

Wednesday, April 19, 2000 | Tag Cloud Tags: ,

19 April 2000 (Newsroom) -- Russia's newly elected president is displaying mixed signals in his approach to church-state relations, according to the Keston Institute, a British-based monitor of religious liberty. Though Vladimir Putin has not publicly discussed his policy initiatives in the run-up to his May 7 inauguration, two steps he has taken during his term as acting president point in "entirely different directions," Keston says.

Putin's approval of the March 26 amendment that extends for one year the deadline for reregistration of religious organizations appears to cast him as favorable to religious freedom. Keston believes, however, that a decree on a new national security policy signed in January may be more indicative of his future policy. The old December 1997 text emphasized the "important role of the Russian Orthodox Church" in preserving spiritual values, but the new text, omitting reference to the church, stipulates that the "spiritual and moral education of the population" should be regulated by state policy. Also, the 1997 policy viewed the main threat in the religious sphere as the "destructive role of various types of religious sects," while the new one stresses "the negative influence of foreign missionaries."

Keston says that this new security policy has become a tool to discredit people of a Muslim background who run afoul of the government. "Wahabism" -- an Islamic movement that Russia believes is the root cause of the Chechen conflict -- is used broadly as a label, for example, regardless of a person's actual affiliation. "It is likely that non-mainstream followers of Islam in Russia will continue to be special targets for restrictions on their religious freedom," Keston says.

The new national security policy also could result in increased restrictions on western Christian missionaries, who are closely watched by the FSB, the federal intelligence service. The FSB has indicated that missionary activity is a particularly effective cover for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to Keston. Putin's close identification with security agencies -- he was head of the KGB -- makes it likely that local FSB departments will interpret the religious aspects of the new security policy as a signal to step up intimidating actions, Keston says.

Putin, Keston believes, will "push for more centralized structures in all areas of life, almost certainly including religion." A structure similar to the Council of Religious Affairs -- which is no longer barred by law as it was from 1990 to 1997 -- will likely be created to make local officials answerable to Moscow rather than to area mayors and governors.

Keston says that observers will be watching closely what happens when the reregistration deadline expires December 31, 2000, noting that the period between the lapse of the old deadline and the introduction of the new may indicate what is to come. During the past three months liquidation has been technically possible as illustrated by the decision of the Voronezh region of central Russia to liquidate 13 religious organizations. The Voronezh regional department of justice initiated suits in local courts, demanding liquidation of Baptist, Pentecostal, and Lutheran churches, and a Jewish community.

The Ministry of Justice has forced the Voronezh department of justice to withdraw the court actions. In 2001, however, groups that fail to achieve reregistration will be faced with an even stronger likelihood of liquidation. The 1997 law states that groups that are not reregistered "may be liquidated," while the new law that extended the deadline says that they "must be liquidated."

Many suspect that the action taken in Voronezh against the minority churches was initiated by the local Orthodox church, particularly since none of its four unregistered monasteries were targeted. Keston says that "there is no reason to suppose that the Voronezh justice department would have made such a U-turn in the absence of the extension to the deadline and the ensuing pressure from the (Justice) Ministry in Moscow."

The Voronezh scenario is likely to be played out in every region of Russia when the deadline expires, Keston says. "The question is whether the Putin administration will allow this, or introduce a further change in the law to prevent it."

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