Authorities will verify the formation of pastors for faith communities, especially those who have studied abroad. Controls will also be carried out on celebrations, rituals, missionary activities and teaching. Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses are the main targets.
As of October 3, one of the changes made recently to the law “On freedom of conscience and religious organisations”, approved on April 5, will come into force throughout the Russian Federation.
The measure requires verification of the “religious formation received” by servants of the cult of all religions. Above all, those who have done part or all of their theological studies abroad will be put under observation.
The regulation was approved after lengthy consultations between representatives of the various communities and the Duma’s (lower house of parliament) committee on religious questions, headed by Communist Sergei Gavrilov.
However, the drafters were unable to remove the limitations and controls, made even more abstruse by the final formulations of the law. The newly renewed Duma will have the power to approve or not “the activity of servants of worship and religious personnel who lead celebrations and rituals, in the realization of missionary tasks or teaching on the territory of the Federation”.
If the formation received is deemed “unsatisfactory,” the newly consecrated person will be required to participate in special “additional education courses in specially licensed institutions of study whose programs have received accreditation in accordance with state standards.”
Thousands of Protestant communities in particular are at risk, where religious education is largely free and there is no clear distinction between clergy and laity, let alone between “patriotic” or international education in the theological-spiritual field.
The new law also replaces the notion of “member” of a community with that of “participant”, without further specification, placing even more responsibility on the leaders of religious associations for the behaviour of all “participants”.
With this nuance, lawmakers attributed a number of “extremist” behaviours to Jehovah’s Witnesses groups, later outlawed by the “Jarovoj decree,” according to the name of the deputy responsible for the changes in 2016.
In recent weeks’ other religious associations have been condemned in Russia as extremist. Especially four communities of Pentecostals founded in Latvia and Ukraine under the name of “New Generation”, now banned on the entire territory of the Federation.
The authorities have in their sights all Russian evangelical groups, already much harassed for their allergy to “state registrations”. On 16 September, a court in the Siberian city of Kemerovo condemned as extremist a book by the founder of the New Generation groups, the ethnic Russian Latvian Aleksej Ledjaev. The text entitled “The New World Order” expresses eschatological-spiritual visions considered “a very dangerous extremist ideology”.
Ledjaev was condemned by the court in absentia, as he was “included in the list of people who are prevented from entering the territory of the Federation”, without the possibility to defend himself directly, or to appeal against the sentence. The judicial procedure was not even officially communicated to him, either abroad or to his representatives at the court in Kemerovo.
As Konstantin Bendas, a Russian writer and evangelical pastor, noted in an article in Nezavisimaja Gazeta on September 22, “the situation of relations between the state and religious denominations in Russia resembles that described by the prophet Daniel, for whom first it was forbidden to pray, then everyone was ordered to worship not their own God, but a certain idol decided by the state”.