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In Russia, proposed amendments trouble country's religious liberty advocates

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In Russia, proposed amendments trouble country's religious liberty advocates

Representatives from the Euro-Asia chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association meet in Moscow December 3 with other religious and legal experts to address proposed amendments to a Russian law they say will fetter free religious expression in the country. [photo: courtesy Euro-Asia PARL]

Measure seeks to restrict missionary activity

December 14, 2009 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

Religious liberty advocates in Russia say proposed amendments to a national law seek to regulate free religious expression in the country and endanger profession of faith provisions in the Russian constitution.

The amendments to the 1997 law called "On Freedom of Conscience and Association" specifically target so-called "missionary activity" in the country, experts say.

If passed, the anticipated amendments will "not only contradict the constitution, but also violate the right to freedom of conscience and faith," said Viktor Vitko, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Euro-Asia.

Vitko's comments came a week after representatives from the Euro-Asia chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), the Slavic Law Center and the Institution of Religion in Law met in Moscow to defend missionary activity as a fundamental expression of freedom of conscience.

While the Russian constitution includes religious liberty provisions, the government does not consistently uphold the equality of minority religions before the law, according to the Religious Freedom World Report, a publication of the world church's PARL department.

More than 52,000 Seventh-day Adventists worship in Russia, part of the two percent of Russians who call themselves non-Orthodox Christians. Reports indicate that Adventists are generally allowed to evangelize freely, but religious liberty experts worry that if passed, the amendments would jeopardize that freedom.

The law in question already gives the Russian Orthodox Church preferred status and "significantly disadvantages" some religious groups deemed "nontraditional," according to the World Report. When passed in 1997, the law required every religious and faith community to register before 2001. At that point, more than 2,000 yet unregistered organizations were "dissolved," the report said.

Amendments to the law might lead to "constant surveillance" by authorities, said John Graz, Adventist world church PARL director. "This would make life for religious minorities and religious dissidents more difficult," he added.

Despite existing challenges, finding support for increased religious freedom in Russia is difficult, Yuri Sipko, chair of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, said during the December 3 meeting. Because Russia is home to a large population of nonbelievers who align themselves with Russian Orthodoxy but don't practice it, many citizens may not have a sharpened sense of what restrictions could mean for active faith groups, Sipko speculated.

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