Russia’s Ministry of Justice has drafted amendments to the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, allowing to stage unauthorized outdoor religious actions only on the territories of places of worship. A sanction from the authorities will be needed in any other case. Violators will be subject to punishment in accordance with the new law on rallies. No criticism has been voiced by religious confessions so far.
The bill lists all the places where public religious actions can be conducted without permission, writes the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily. Such places are mostly places of worship, or, to put it in secular terms, churches, mosques, synagogues, etc., and sites of pilgrimage, cemeteries and crematoria, and residential premises. To hold a religious ceremony in any other place an authorization from the local authorities will be needed. Such an authorization will be issued in accordance with the procedure fixed in the law on rallies, marches and demonstrations.
Igor Kovalevsky, the Secretary General of the Russian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the RBC daily that Catholics had already staged some of their street actions in compliance with the new law and had had no problems with that. “Security considerations are what matter most. There were attempts to apply the toughened law on rallies against organizers of mass Moslem services in the Kaluga region and in the Primorsky Territory, although they were not fined,” he said.
However, according to the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, leading religious associations are worried over the new document. The newspaper cites Damir Gizatullin, the first deputy chairman of the European Russia Spiritual Moslem Directorate, who said that, as a rule, believers are law-abiding citizens, and Russian Moslems had been practicing notification of local secular authorities about their actions for years.
The Moscow Patriarchate has voiced no criticism of the justice ministry’s initiative either. “This document in no way violates the Church’s rights. Maybe, it needs some adjustment. The very definition of the “public religious action and ceremony” might be somewhat specified,” the newspaper quotes nun Xenia (Chernegi), the head of the Patriarchate’s legal service.
Lawyer Anatoly Pchelintsev, professor of the Centre for the Study of Religions of the Russian State University of the Humanities, said it was a predicted amendment. Nonetheless, he noted, such regulation of religious ceremonies is excessive. “The goal of this amendment is to abridge the right of conscience for religious minorities. This amendment will tell only on them. In particular, it targets Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice holding their actions at stadiums. The law will in no way affect major religions,” he said.
However, Pchelintsev noted, more detailed elaboration is needed in what concerns immolation practices during the Moslem Kurban Bayrami Feast of the Sacrifice. “The bill should be more exact about sacrifice offering practices. It should fix both the sanitary hygienic norms, and ethic norms, since this rite is not a comfortable sight,” he said.
According to the expert, the bill is to be subject to a general discussion. “It might cause some problems if not in Russia, but in North Caucasian republics. Religion is the mode of life there and the bill may disturb the harmony,” he said.
The situation around the bill is ambiguous, political scientist Pavel Salin told the Novye Izvestia newspaper. “On the one hand, it catches up the screw-tightening policy, when the authorities look upon any mass action, whatever its aims might be, as a potential threat to themselves. Whereas previously only socio-political actions used to be subject to authorization, now, judging by the developments in St. Petersburg, such authorization is needed to stage a mass snowball fight. On the other hand, religious holidays and feasts often cause problems, especially in big cities,” the expert said and added that the requirement to obtain a permit would be binding upon all confessions.