Mar 20, 2016

Hopes of Religious Freedom in Former Soviet Union Fall Short

Armine Sahakyan Human rights activist based in Armenia
Kyiv Post
March 20, 2016

Early in its existence, the Soviet Union turned Vladimir Lenin’s dictum that “religion is the opium of the people” into official policy.

Atheism was what Lenin wanted for the Soviet empire, and it’s what it got.

Assuring such an outcome were laws discouraging faith — such as requirements that religions register with the state — and denying Communist Party membership to anyone religious.

Many people expected a flowering of faith when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

But it hasn’t happened, largely because the countries that emerged from the ashes of the USSR have repressed most religions, the main exceptions being Russian Orthodox Christianity and certain brands of Islam.

The repressed have included denominations of Christianity that are widespread in other countries, such as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

As with other regrettable trends in the former Soviet Union, Russia has set the tone for the repression of religion.

Countries as diverse as Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia have followed the Russian example.

Russia’s enactment of a law governing religion in 1997 has made it difficult for faiths besides Russian Orthodox Christianity to survive, let alone thrive.

Religions were required to register in Russia before 1997. The new law required them to reregister by 2001, and made it more difficult for them to do so. About 2,000 were unable to comply with the new regulations, and were disbanded.

The Russian Orthodox Church was required to reregister, too. But because the law gave it special status as Russia’s traditional faith, and because most government officials viewed it as the country’s only legitimate religion, it had no trouble reregistering.

Vladimir Putin’s lock on Russia’s leadership since 2000 has given the Russian Orthodox Church an even more commanding position in the country’s religious picture.

Putin has publicly called the church, which he attends, a vital part of Russian life and tradition.

Not surprisingly, Russian Orthodox Church leaders have hailed him as a great leader.

Belarus is one of the former Soviet countries that has passed a religious law modeled after Russia’s.

The legislation bans faiths that are not registered with the government, requires government approval of all religious materials, prevents non-citizens from leading religious organizations, and prohibits most religious meetings in private homes.

As in Russia, the law assures that the Russian Orthodox Church holds a commanding position in the country’s religious life.

Russia passed anti-terrorism legislation in 2002 and 2007 that critics say has been used to repress non-Orthodox faiths.

It was billed as legislation to help law enforcement go after religious and nationalist extremists, but it has been used to prosecute members of such peaceful faiths as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas.

Kazakhstan passed sweeping anti-terrorist legislation after a series of radical-Islamist attacks unnerved the country in 2011.

Although ostensibly designed to help law enforcement go after extremists, the law has been used to shut down religions that Kazakhstan deems “non-traditional.” Only five faiths fall into its “traditional” category: Russian Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

The law requires a faith to have 50 members to obtain official recognition at the local level, 500 members to obtain recognition at the regional level and 5,000 members to obtain recognition at the national level. If it fails to mount those numbers, it it considered to be operating illegally.

The Kazakhstan legislation had the repressive effect critics had predicted. In the year after it was passed, the number of denominations the government sanctioned fell from 46 to 17.

People of faith both inside and outside Kazakhstan couldn’t help but note the irony that President Nursultan Nazarbayev had long trumpeted the country’s ethnic and religious tolerance — and part of the evidence he offered was that Kazakhstan recognized more than 40 faiths. Despite the post-2011 crackdown, Nazarbayev continues to paint Kazakhstan as a faith-tolerant society.

Armenia’s main brand of Christianity enjoys the same privileged position that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan’s do.

At one time the government used to excuse Armenian Apostolic Church clergy and seminarians from the country’s mandatory military service. But it jailed members of denominations who refused to serve because they were conscientious objectors — in particular, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Changes in the law have led to conscientious objectors being allowed to perform alternative public service under civilian — rather than military — leadership.

Meanwhile, Armenian schools require students to take a course on the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The course is mandatory; students cannot opt out on religious grounds.

Although the course is supposed to be about the role the church has played in Armenia’s development, in practice it is often focuses on the church’s precepts and beliefs, critics say.

In other words, it is a proselytizing and faith-affirmation tool, according to the detractors.

As the examples from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia show, the former Soviet Union has a long way to go in bestowing religious freedom on all its citizens.

In fact, the trend in the past 10 to 15 years has been to shrink rather than expand such freedom.

The only hope for those who embrace non-traditional faiths is that the repression will ease as time passes.

Armine Sahakyan is a human rights activist based in Armenia. A columnist with the Kyiv Post and a blogger with The Huffington Post, she writes on human rights and democracy in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter

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