Economist: a new look at religion in post -1991 Russia
- [Islam pre-dates Christianity???]
A question of faith
A new look at religion in post-1991 RussiaFeb 2nd 2013
Believing in Russia—Religious Policy after Communism. By Geraldine Fagan. Routledge; 320 pages;
THE dark Soviet shadow still lies over religion in modern Russia. The official atheism of Communist days, when believers were hounded, jailed and killed, is long gone. On paper, religious freedom is now protected. But in practice, intolerance remains. Russia’s rulers see faith not as a personal matter but as a public phenomenon, vital to national identity and security. Citizens, they believe, need protecting from the vagaries of individual choice.
Few outsiders are better qualified to write about this than Geraldine Fagan, who has spent many years in Moscow for Forum 18, a religious-freedom monitoring group headquartered in Norway. Her illuminating book describes the state’s clear favouritism of the Russian Orthodox Church, plus its increasing harassment of minority believers, which echo the anti-religious policies of “Beria and Brezhnev”.
Russia’s “traditional” religions, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, enjoy official protection, albeit in carefully controlled forms. Others, such as Protestantism, count as alien and therefore threatening. Though the constitution guarantees religious freedom, laws on “extremism” and a raft of vague, draconian rules governing book-keeping, publications and premises pull in the other direction. In 2010 the octogenarian Alexei Fedorin became the first Jehovah’s Witness since Soviet times to be convicted for his faith: he had distributed “extremist” material. Eight similar cases were pending as Ms Fagan’s book went to press. Protestant churches find it hard or impossible to get visas for visiting pastors. Unofficial religious education can attract criminal prosecution.
The Russian Orthodox Church, Ms Fagan writes, “asserts itself as the definitive expression of Russian nationhood”. But the idea of Russia as a monolithic Orthodox country beset by newfangled foreign religions is a myth. Ms Fagan depicts other minority religions with diligent sympathy. The orthodox “Old Believers” split over liturgical reforms in 1666. They are still struggling to get back churches the communists confiscated. Readers may be surprised to learn that Islam predates Christianity on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation. Europe’s oldest Buddhist temple is in St Petersburg, and Protestants have worshipped in Russia since the 16th century. Pagans thrive in Mari-El, a republic in Russia’s Volga region.
Panic would be premature. Local officials are often harsh, but minority religions, thanks to a network of activists and some good lawyers, have won important victories at higher levels—including in the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2006 overturned a ban on the Salvation Army’s registration. The problem, for now, is incoherence, not systematic persecution.
Russia’s difficulty in dealing with religious freedom reflects partly a dilemma about whether the country is a secular or a confessional state. But Ms Fagan sees a connection to deeper questions about its identity. What does it really mean to be a Russian? And who decides? Once people start making their own choices, the results can be uncomfortable for rulers.
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