A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a piece on religion in Russia that started ominously: “It was not long after a Methodist church put down roots here that the troubles began…” This noir-ish line was the lead-in for an article that went on to describe the harassment of Protestant worshipers, some of whom claim to fear for their lives. A prominent Orthodox cleric is quoted as referring to Protestants as “heretics… like the soldiers who crucified Christ.” There is, of course, an anti-Western flavor to this theological assessment (the Protestant groups in question having counterparts in the United States), but for anxious minority religious groups in Russia this prejudice is the least of their worries.
In today’s Russia, religion is in vogue. When the country celebrated Easter two weeks ago, thousands of Muscovites flocked to the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the capital city’s main church. This colossal masterpiece of architecture, demolished by Joseph Stalin in 1931 and restored in 2000, symbolizes the reemergence of Russian Orthodoxy after seven decades of state-imposed atheism. The radiant Easter Vigil was a religious event as well as a political one; among those present were Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, sharing center stage with Patriarch Alexiy II. “May the Lord grant you strength to continue the heroic deeds you have performed for the good of Russia,” the Patriarch said to Putin and Medvedev during the liturgy, and the two presidents exchanged traditional kisses with the gray-bearded Church leader in front of dozens of television cameras and a jubilant crowd of believers.
The presence of political dignitaries at major Christian events, unimaginable two decades ago, has become an ordinary occurrence in recent years. It underscores the special status of Russian Orthodoxy and harkens back to Russia’s tsarist past when the Church and the monarchy were inseparable. To their credit, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev do not wear religion on their sleeves. When asked in a recent interview whether he believes in God, Putin replied: “There are things I believe, which should not, in my position at least, be shared with the public.” In a similar fashion, Medvedev said to a group of young supporters, “Personal religious feelings are an intimate matter, and this makes them especially valuable.” Nevertheless, both leaders regularly take advantage of the Church’s popular appeal to bolster their image.
Opinion polls show that roughly two-thirds of the Russian population describe themselves as Russian Orthodox, and many feel that to be Russian means to be Orthodox. Disillusioned with both communism and democracy, Russians view their historic religion as a unique source of national unity, and the Church ranks second only to the president in the level of trust it enjoys among the people. Whether alleviating poverty, caring for the sick and the orphaned, or ministering to the prisoners, Orthodox charities play an important role in furthering social justice, and the Russians appreciate the Church’s efforts.
But the emerging church-state alliance worries religious liberty advocates and members of the Russian intelligentsia. Last year, ten prominent Russian academics, including two Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to Putin condemning the “creeping clericalization” of Russia and criticizing the Church’s attempts to introduce religion in the public schools. Many fear that the Church’s growing political influence will undermine the secular character of the state and inflame nationalistic sentiments.
Much has changed in Russia since the early 1990s when the government welcomed all forms of religious expression. Although the Russian Constitution guarantees equality of religions before the law, new religious movements are facing an increasingly hostile environment due largely to the political influence of Orthodox officials who fear the growth of Protestant groups in the country. “We expected that our fellow Christians would support and help us in our own missionary service,” said Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Church’s external relations department. “In reality, however, they have started fighting with our church, like boxers in a ring with their pumped-up muscles, delivering blows.” The obsession of some Orthodox bishops with the “destructive” influence of new religious movements has led to unfounded accusations that westerners are bribing Russians into joining their sects or, worse yet, recruiting them to work on behalf of foreign governments to destabilize the country. The anti-Protestant rhetoric escalated after many evangelicals took part in the 2004 Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine.
These days, many religious groups are at the mercy of local authorities that feel pressured by the Orthodox bishops to restrict the ministry of other churches. Such restrictions have become common after the Russian government adopted the 1997 law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.” Promoted by the Orthodox Church and directed specifically against new religious movements, the law distinguished between the four traditional faiths—Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism—and non-traditional groups such as Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-Day Saints, and Hare Krishnas. In order to maintain legal status, churches had to prove that they had operated in Russia at least for fifteen years. Many of the new religious groups had trouble meeting this requirement and faced the possibility of losing the right to purchase and own real estate, establish educational institutions, and distribute literature. As Russia scholar Phillip Walters explains, “If it had been consistently applied, the 1997 law would by now have ensured that no religious organizations would remain in Russia today other than the very limited number that were functioning in Andropov’s Soviet Union.”
In reality, the 1997 law has not been strictly enforced at the federal level, but it has allowed local politicians to discriminate against minority faiths. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, and the Salvation Army have experienced difficulties with registration, and many foreign missionaries were denied re-entry into the country. It has also become difficult for non-traditional groups to acquire real estate or even to rent public facilities. The unofficial alliance between the state and the Orthodox Church is stifling religious freedom in many parts of the country.
Russians have rediscovered religion, but without a strong commitment to religious liberty and secularism, the new fascination with Russian Orthodoxy is more likely to breed hatred and xenophobia than a healthy respect for religious pluralism that is crucial to the development of democracy and civil society.