The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, in some cases authorities imposed restrictions on certain groups. Although the constitution provides for the equality of all religions before the law and the separation of church and state, the Government did not always respect these provisions.
Conditions deteriorated for some minority religious groups while remaining largely the same for most, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion for most of the population. Some federal agencies and many local authorities continued to restrict the rights of various religious minorities. Legal obstacles to registration under a complex 1997 law "On Freedom of Conscience and Associations" (1997 Law) continued to seriously disadvantage many religious groups considered nontraditional. The Moscow Golovinskiy Intermunicipal District Court cited the 1997 Law as the basis for its March 2004 decision banning Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, a decision that continued to have significant negative ramifications for the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses during the reporting period. There were indications that the security services, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), increasingly treated the leadership of some minority religious groups as security threats.
Religious matters were not a source of social tension or problems for the large majority of citizens. Popular attitudes toward traditionally Muslim ethnic groups, however, were negative in many regions, and there were manifestations of anti-Semitism as well as hostility toward Roman Catholics and other non-Orthodox Christian denominations. Some observant Muslims claimed harassment because of their faith. Instances of religiously motivated violence continued, although it was often difficult to determine whether xenophobic, religious, or ethnic prejudices were the primary motivation behind violent attacks. Many citizens firmly believe that at least nominal adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is at the heart of their national identity. Conservative activists claiming ties to the ROC occasionally disseminated negative publications and held meetings throughout the country against other religions considered non-traditional in the country, including alternative Orthodox congregations. Some ROC clergy have stated publicly their opposition to any expansion of the presence of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and other non-Orthodox denominations.
The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights and engages a number of religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others in a regular dialogue on religious freedom. The embassy and consulates work with NGOs to encourage the development of programs to sensitize officials to recognize discrimination, prejudice, and crimes motivated by ethnic or religious intolerance. In many instances, federal and regional officials strongly support the implementation of these programs. The embassy and consulates maintain a broad range of contacts in the religious and NGO communities through frequent communication and meetings. Mission officers look into possible violations of religious freedom and also raise the issue of visas for religious workers with the Passport and Visa Unit in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Foreign Ministry (MFA). During the reporting period, the U.S. ambassador addressed religious freedom in public addresses and consultations with government officials. He also attended events on major religious holidays and regularly met with a range of religious leaders. Other Department of State and U.S. government officials raised the treatment of minority religious groups with officials on many occasions.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 6,592,769 square miles, and its population is approximately 142.8 million. There were no reliable statistics that break down the population by denomination. Available information suggested approximately 70 percent of the residents considered themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, although the vast majority were not regular churchgoers. There were an estimated fourteen to twenty-three million Muslims, constituting approximately 14 percent of the population and forming the largest religious minority. The majority of Muslims lived in the Volga-Urals region--which included Tatarstan and Bashkortostan--and the North Caucasus, although Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia had notable Muslim populations as well. The Muslim communities in the Volga-Urals region and the North Caucasus are culturally and in some cases theologically distinct from one another and therefore must be considered separate communities.
According to the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, Protestants made up the second largest group of Christian believers, with approximately 3,500 organizations and more than 2 million followers. An estimated 600,000 to 1 million Jews (0.5 percent of the population) remained, following large-scale emigration over the last two decades; the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) estimated that up to 500,000 Jews lived in Moscow and 100,000 in St. Petersburg. These estimates significantly exceeded the results of the official government census. Between 5,000 and 7,000 Jews lived in the so-called Jewish Autonomous Oblast (region), located in the Far East. The Catholic Church estimated that there were from 600,000 to 1.5 million Catholics in the country, figures that also exceeded government estimates. Buddhism is traditional to three regions: Buryatiya, Tuva, and Kalmykiya; and the Buddhist Association of Russia estimated there were between 1.5 and 2 million Buddhists. In some areas, such as Yakutiya and Chukotka, pantheistic and nature-based religions were practiced independently or alongside other religions.
According to Human Rights Ombudsman Lukin's annual report, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) had registered 22,513 religious organizations as of December 2005, approximately 500 more than January 2005 (22,092), an increase of approximately 1,500 registered organizations since 2002 and more than 5,500 since 1997. As of December 2005, the Federal Registration Service recorded the number of registered religious groups as follows: Russian Orthodox Church - 12,214 groups, Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church - 43, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad - 30, True Orthodox Church - 42, Russian Orthodox Free Church - 10, Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) - 11, Old Believers - 285 (representing 4 different Old Believer denominations), Roman Catholic - 251, Greek Catholic - 4, Armenian Apostolic - 68, Muslim - 3,668, Buddhist - 197, Jewish - 284 (divided among Orthodox and Reform groups), Evangelical Christians - 740, Baptist - 965, Pentecostal - 1,486, Seventh-day Adventist - 652, other evangelical and charismatic groups - 72, Lutheran - 228 (divided among 4 groups), New Apostolic - 80, Methodist - 115, Reformist - 5, Presbyterian - 187, Anglican - 1, Jehovah's Witnesses - 408, Mennonite - 10, Salvation Army - 10, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter - day Saints (LDS)(Mormon) Church - 53, Unification Church - 9, Church of the "Sovereign" Icon of the Mother of God - 27, Molokane - 27, Dukhobor - 0, Church of the Last Covenant - 7, Church of Christ - 19, Judeo-Christians - 2, nondenominational Christian - 12, Scientologist - 1, Hindu - 1, Krishna - 78, Baha'i - 19, Tantric - 2, Taoist - 5, Assyrian - 2, Sikh - 1, Shamanist - 14, Karaite - 1, Zoroastrian - 1, Spiritual Unity (Tolstoyan) - 1, Living Ethic (Rerikhian) - 1, pagan - 8, other confessions - 155.
The number of registered religious organizations does not reflect the entire demography of religious believers. For example, due to legal restrictions, poor administrative procedures on the part of some local authorities, or disputes between religious organizations, an unknown number of groups have been unable to register or reregister; and other religious believers may not seek to be members of any organized religious group.
There were a large number of missionaries operating in the country, particularly from Protestant denominations.
An estimated 500 (official estimate) to more than 9,000 (Council of Muftis' estimate) Muslim organizations remained unregistered; some reportedly were defunct, but many, according to the Council of Muftis, have concluded that they did not require legal status and have postponed applying for financial reasons. Registration figures probably also underestimated the number of Pentecostal churches. As of May 2006, there were nearly 1,500 Pentecostal organizations officially registered (up from 1,467 in 2004) and 18 regional associations; statistics on the number of believers were unavailable. The difference in numbers can be explained by the fact that many Pentecostal churches remain unregistered. The Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists reported more than 1,000 registered churches, 549 unregistered groups, 7 regional associations, and more than 75,000 members. The Union of Seventh-Day Adventists estimated that there were 1,026 Adventist organizations in the country (more than 600 of them are registered with the Ministry of Justice) and more than 100,000 church followers. According to the Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith (whose members included Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, and the Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith), there were 2,005 registered churches and unregistered groups, more than 180,000 members of the Church, and 67 regional central organizations. The total number of members of the Church and other evangelical believers was estimated at 320,000.
Some religious groups registered as social organizations because they were unable to do so as religious organizations. In 2005 the Association of Christian Unification Churches reported that the drop in its registered organizations from seventeen in 2003 to five was due to local authorities hindering the association's attempt to reregister its local organizations. In 2006, it continued to report 5 registered organizations, approximately 30 unregistered groups, and 1,000 believers. The Moscow Monthly Friends' Meeting (Quakers) was an officially registered organization, although as of May 2006, it apparently was registered under "other faiths," as there was no Quaker organization listed in the MOJ registry.
In practice, only a minority of citizens participated actively in any religion. Many who identified themselves as members of a faith participated in religious life rarely or not at all.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, in some cases the authorities imposed restrictions on certain groups. The constitution also provides for the equality of all religions before the law and the separation of church and state; however, the Government did not always respect this provision.
The 1997 Law declared all religions equal before the law, prohibited government interference in religion, and established simple registration procedures for religious groups. Although the 1997 Law did not recognize a state religion, its preamble recognized Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions as constituting an inseparable part of the country's historical heritage, and also recognized the "special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia's spirituality and culture." Public opinion widely considered Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism to be the only religions "traditional" to the country.
Implementing regulations took effect on April 10, 2006, for the Law on Public Associations (NGO Law), which President Putin signed on January 10, 2006. The 1997 Law remains the primary legislation governing religious organizations, but some provisions of the new NGO Law will apply to religious organizations as well. Although implementing regulations were in effect for too short a time in the reporting period to examine their effects on policy directives and subsequent implementation, the new law's inspection provisions are of particular concern since they appear to permit government inspections of religious organizations and attendance at some of their public events with advance notice. Although most of the provisions in the new law do not apply to religious organizations, the law appears to contain some provisions that apply, such as new reporting requirements; the authority for the registration body (located in the MOJ) to request certain documents, send its representatives to participate in events, and review on an annual basis compliance of an organizations' activities with its statutory goals; and a requirement that covered nonprofit organizations inform the registering body of changes to certain data within three days of the effectuation of the changes. In addition, the brief amendment to the Civil Code would also appear to reach religious organizations, but the effect of this amendment and all other amendments remains to be seen in how the authorities choose to implement the law. Local authorities in St. Petersburg, however, began an investigation of the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center, even before the new law's implementing regulations were agreed upon, but citing the new law as the cause and indicating that they would find any irregularity that would permit them to close down the center.
On March 10, 2006, President Putin signed a controversial anti-terrorism law, which critics charged was vaguely-worded, especially the provision that permits the banning of any organization "whose purposes and actions include the propaganda, justification, and support of terrorism."
In January 2005 authorities amended the 1997 Law to conform to a new law on state registration of other legal entities. The amended law requires all registered local religious organizations to inform the Federal Registration Service (FRS) within three days of a change in its leadership or legal address. If a local organization fails to meet this requirement on two or more occasions, the FRSD can file suit to dissolve and deregister the organization. Some denominations with numerous local organizations feared that compliance with this change will be highly burdensome.
Neither the constitution nor the 1997 Law accords explicit privileges or advantages to the four "traditional" religions; however, many politicians and public figures argued for closer cooperation with them, and above all with the ROC. The ROC has entered into a number of agreements - some formal, others informal - with government ministries on such matters as guidelines for public education and law enforcement and customs decisions, giving the ROC far greater access than other religious groups to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, the FSB, and the army. In November 2004 the ROC and the MVD extended an earlier agreement pursuant to which the two entities cooperate in efforts to combat extremism, terrorism, and drug addiction. Such efforts include, for example, ROC support for the psychological rehabilitation of servicemen returning from conflict zones and the holding of religious services for those serving there.
Many government officials and citizens equate Russian Orthodoxy with the national identity. This belief appears to have manifested itself in the church-state relationship. For example, the ROC has made special arrangements with government agencies to conduct religious education and to provide spiritual counseling. These include agreements with the Ministries of Education, Defense, Health, Internal Affairs, and Emergency Situations, and other bodies, such as the Federal Tax Service, Federal Border Service, and Main Department of Cossack Forces under the President. Not all of the details of these agreements were accessible, but available information indicated that the ROC received more favorable treatment than other denominations. Some government officials' public statements and anecdotal evidence from religious minorities suggested that increasingly since 1999, the ROC has enjoyed a status that approaches official. Although it was illegal, election campaign teams reportedly often included ROC clergy who frequently played a special role at official events at both the local and national level and who supported a close relationship with the State. Non-ordained ROC officials may participate in election campaigns but not as official church spokesmen. Nonetheless, policymakers remained divided on the State's proper relationship with the ROC and other churches.
The Rodina Duma faction and single-mandate deputies representing the People's Party have consistently supported a more official status for the ROC. The president, in contrast with his predecessors, has openly spoken of his belief in God, and greeted Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities on major religious holidays. He also meets periodically - last documented in September 2004 - with members of the Presidential Council on Cooperation with Religious Associations, which includes representatives of traditional religions and other major religious communities, such as the Protestants and Catholics, to discuss topical issues. Sergey Sobyanin, Chief of the Presidential Administration, headed the Council, and two Presidential Administration officials (Mikhail Ostrovskiy and Aleksandr Kudryavtsev) were Council members.
The 1997 Law ostensibly targets so-called totalitarian sects or dangerous religious cults, by making it difficult for members of less well-established religions to set up religious organizations. Many officials in law enforcement and the legislative branches spoke of protecting the "spiritual security" of the country by discouraging the growth of "sects" and "cults," usually understood to include Protestant and newer religious movements. The 1997 Law is very complex, with many ambiguous provisions, creating various categories of religious communities with different levels of legal status and privileges. Most significantly, the law distinguishes between religious "groups" and "organizations." A religious "group" is not registered and consequently does not have the legal status of a juridical person; it may not open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, enjoy tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons and state-owned hospitals and among the armed forces. However, individual members of a group may buy property for the group's use, invite personal guests to engage in religious instruction, and import religious material. In this way, authorities theoretically permitted groups to rent public spaces and hold services; however, in practice members of unregistered groups sometimes encountered significant difficulty in doing so.
The 1997 Law provides that a group that has existed for fifteen years and has at least ten citizen members may register as a "local organization." It acquires the status of a juridical person and receives certain legal advantages. A group with three functioning local organizations in different regions may found a "centralized organization," which has the right to establish affiliated local organizations without meeting the fifteen-year-rule requirement.
The 1997 Law required all religious organizations registered under a more liberal 1990 law to reregister by December 31, 2000. In practice, this process, which involved simultaneous registration at the federal and local levels, required considerable time, effort, and legal expense. International and well-funded domestic religious organizations began to reregister soon after publication of the 1997 regulations; however, some Pentecostal congregations refused to register out of religious conviction, and some Muslim groups decided that they would not benefit from reregistering, according to spokespersons for the two most prominent muftis.
Representative offices of foreign religious organizations are required to register with state authorities, and they are barred from conducting services and other religious activities unless they have acquired the status of a group or organization. In practice, many foreign religious representative offices opened without registering or were accredited to a registered religious organization.
Under a 1999 amendment to the 1997 Law, groups that failed to reregister became subject to legal dissolution (often translated as "liquidation"), i.e., deprivation of juridical status. By the deadline for reregistration, the MOJ held an estimated 2,095 religious groups subject to dissolution and dissolved approximately 980 by May 2002, asserting they were defunct, but religious minorities and NGOs contended that a significant number were active. Complaints of involuntary dissolution have decreased in recent years in part because those who fought dissolution have already taken their cases to court; however, a few groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Salvation Army, the Unification Church and Scientologists, were still fighting their cases through the court system.
The 1997 Law gives officials the authority to ban religious groups. Unlike dissolution, which involves only the loss of an organization's juridical status, a ban prohibits all of the activities of a religious community. Authorities have not used the law to ban many groups to date. However, in a notable exception, the decision of a Moscow court judge in June 2004 to uphold on appeal the ban on Jehovah's
Witnesses garnered significant media coverage and prompted an upswing in restrictions on Jehovah's Witnesses. As of April 2006, authorities permitted registration of Jehovah's Witnesses groups in 400 local communities in 72 regions, but problems with registration continued in some areas, notably Moscow, where the Moscow Golovinskiy Intermunicipal District Court and the Moscow City Court (of appeal) have banned them.
A lack of specific guidelines accompanying the 1997 Law contributed to inconsistent application at the local and regional levels. Local officials, reportedly often influenced either by close relations with local ROC authorities or the FSB, sometimes refused outright to register groups or created prohibitive obstacles to registration. There were indications that the Procurator General encouraged local prosecutors to challenge the registration of some minority religious groups.
The LDS Church succeeded in registering fifty-one local religious organizations as of the end of the reporting period. In 2005 authorities registered the LDS Church in Tver following a series of rejections of its application for registration. The group has not been able to register a local religious organization in Kazan, Tatarstan, since 1998 despite numerous attempts. In April 2006 the Federal Registration Service, part of the MOJ, restored the Salvation Army's registration documentation for the country-wide central religious organization. The legal position of its Moscow branch remained unresolved. Although the Constitutional Court found earlier rulings by Moscow courts dissolving the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army to be unconstitutional, the Moscow Oblast Department of Justice had not reregistered the organization by the end of the reporting period, and two of the court judgments that legally dissolved the applicant branch remained in force, despite the ruling of the Constitutional Court.
In a separate case, authorities had not enforced the Presnenskiy District Court ruling against the Salvation Army's registration, and according to the organization's Moscow office, it continued to operate based on documents filed under the old statute. The preface of the Presnenskiy Court's ruling refers to the Salvation Army as a "militarized organization." A textbook on religious culture prepared for use in schools repeats this definition of the Salvation Army, which it calls a "sect." The Slavic Center for Law and Justice (SCLJ) was working with the Moscow office of the Salvation Army to overturn the Presnenskiy Court ruling. The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in June 2004 that the group's complaint that Moscow authorities had not allowed it to reregister was admissible; however, the court declared the rest of the complaints inadmissible. At the end of the reporting period, an ECHR decision on the merits was pending; however, the Salvation Army had not reported obstruction of its daily activities in Moscow.
Moscow authorities continued to deny reregistration to the Moscow branch of the Church of Scientology, threatening it with dissolution. The Scientologists countered the MOJ contention that the church had failed to reregister by the deadline by citing the 2002 Constitutional Court ruling in favor of the Salvation Army. Despite the court ruling against dissolution, the Government filed a supervisory appeal to the Supreme Court, which granted it, and remanded the case back to the trial court for new proceedings, in which the trial court ruled in the Government's favor. In February 2005, a Moscow appeals court ordered Moscow Oblast officials to permit the Church to submit an application for reregistration and to examine the application on its merits. Prior to this decision, the Church of Scientology had filed a suit with the ECHR against the dissolution order, which the ECHR found admissible in October 2004. The case was still pending in the ECHR. By June 2006 the Church had filed for reregistration eleven times; the Moscow registration service rejected the tenth claim on June 27, 2005.
According to the Church of Scientology, other than the reregistration case the Church has had no substantive problems with other government agencies in the country in general, such as the tax authorities, prosecutor's office, or police. They had good relations with the authorities, especially regarding the Church's Human Rights Campaign and Youth for Human Rights Campaign. Authorities regularly issued permits without problem for Church-sponsored human rights events and anti-drug events, which have the support of various agencies. Under the Church of Scientology umbrella there were approximately 100 registered groups promoting the Church's ideas and projects throughout the country.
In response to local authorities' repeated refusal to register the St. Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology, the Church filed suit. The St. Petersburg registration service claimed that the document from the St. Petersburg District Authorities certifying that the Church of Scientology has existed in St. Petersburg for fifteen years was not "authentic," although it did not give a reason for its finding. Authorities postponed a hearing scheduled for May 2005 for procedural reasons until June 2005; due to the illness of the presiding judge, authorities postponed the June 2005 hearing indefinitely, and at the end of the reporting period no hearing date had been set.
Local authorities have impeded the operation of Scientology centers in Dmitrograd, Izhevsk, and other localities. Since these centers have not existed for fifteen years, they were unable to register and cannot perform religious services (although they were allowed to hold meetings and seminars). The Churches of Scientology in Surgut City and Nizhnekamsk (Tatarstan) filed suits with the ECHR against the refusal of officials to register the churches based on the fifteen-year rule. The ECHR found the suits admissible in June 2005; the cases were awaiting a final decision.
The Council of Muftis indicated that registration was not an issue for Muslim organizations, and some regional Muslim organizations continued to operate without registration, such as the thirty-nine of forty-seven Muslim communities in the Stavropol region that operated without registration despite affiliation with a recognized regional Muslim administration. How many were unregistered by choice was unknown, but many Muslim organizations in the North Caucasus preferred not to be considered an official entity. The regions of Kabardino-Balkariya and Dagestan have local laws banning extremist religious activities, described as "Wahhabism," but there were no reports that authorities invoked these laws to deny registration to Muslim groups. The government in the Republic of Tatarstan, one of the strongest Islamic areas, continued to encourage a Tatar cultural and religious revival while avoiding instituting confrontational religious policies.
The Unification Church reported that the requirements of a broad range of government agencies, involving fire inspection, tax inspection, and epidemiological inspection unduly complicated the registration process.
A 2002 "Law on Foreigners," which transferred much of the responsibility for visa affairs from the MFA to the MVD, appeared to disrupt the visa regime for religious and other foreign workers. Immediately after implementation of this law, nontraditional groups reported problems receiving long-term visas. Although the number of such problems appeared to decrease during the previous reporting period, such reports continued, most notably with the recent ousters of the principal legal advisor for the Unification Church in January 2006 and a fellow worker in the Urals in February 2006. The former had lived in Moscow since 1990. As in the latter case, the FSB inserts itself into matters dealing with visas and religion, particularly with groups it labels "dangerous cults and sects," distinctions that it reserves for some of these nontraditional groups.
Working groups within the Government continued to focus on introducing possible amendments to the controversial 1997 Law but had not introduced any by the end of the reporting period. Duma Deputy Aleksandr Chuyev was one of several officials who proposed legislative changes to formally grant special status to "traditional" religious denominations.
According to Federal Registration Service statistics, authorities investigated the activities of 3,526 religious organizations during the 2005 calendar year. The MOJ sent notifications of various violations to 2,996 religious organizations. The courts made decisions on liquidating fifty-nine local organizations for violations of constitutional norms and federal legislation during that period. The courts made no decisions on banning religious organizations. In July 2004 the MOJ had reported that authorities had returned more than 4,000 churches and other property and more than 15,000 religious items to the ROC. No update on the latter was available.
Officials of the Presidential Administration, regions, and localities maintain consultative mechanisms to facilitate government interaction with religious communities and to monitor application of the 1997 Law. At the national level, groups interact with a special governmental commission on religion, which includes representatives from law enforcement bodies and government ministries. On broader policy questions, religious groups continued to deal with the Presidential Administration through a body known as the Presidential Council on Cooperation with Religious Associations. The broad-based Council is composed of members of the Presidential Administration, secular academic specialists on religious affairs, and representatives of traditional and major nontraditional groups. Other governmental bodies for religious affairs include a Governmental Commission for the Affairs of Religious Associations, headed by the Minister of Culture and Mass Communications. Under the President, there is also a Council for the Promotion of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights.
Avenues for interaction with regional and local authorities also exist. The offices of some of the seven Plenipotentiary Presidential Representatives (Polpreds) include sub-offices that address social and religious issues. Regional administrations and many municipal administrations also have designated officials for liaison with religious organizations; it is at these administrative levels that religious minorities often encounter the greatest problems.
The Russian Academy of State Service works with religious freedom advocates, such as the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, to train regional and municipal officials in properly implementing the 1997 Law. The academy opens many of its conferences to international audiences.
The office of Federal Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin contains a department for religious freedom issues, which receives and responds to complaints.
Representatives of some minority religions and many expert observers claimed that some government officials, particularly in the security services, believed minority religions - especially Muslims, Roman Catholics, some Protestant denominations, and other groups - were security threats, requiring greater monitoring and possibly greater control.
In 2004 Smolensk and Kursk Oblast authorities adopted local laws restricting missionary activity. Under these laws, foreigners visiting the region are forbidden to engage in missionary activity or to preach unless specifically allowed to do so according to their visas. There were no reports of enforcement.
Contradictions between federal and local laws, and varying interpretations of the law, allowed regional officials to restrict the activities of religious minorities. Many observers attributed discriminatory practices at the local level to the greater susceptibility of local governments than the federal government to the influence of local majority religious groups. There were isolated instances in which local officials detained individuals engaged in publicly discussing their religious views, but usually authorities resolved these instances quickly. Although President Putin's expressed desire for greater centralization of power and strengthening of the rule of law initially led to some improvements in religious freedom in the regions, as local laws were brought into conformity with federal laws, many localities appeared to implement their own policies with very little federal interference. When the federal government chooses to intervene, it works through the Procuracy, MOJ, Presidential Administration, and the courts, forcing regions to comply with federal law or not, depending on the political stakes, as with the Moscow Jehovah's Witnesses and Salvation Army cases. The Government only occasionally intervened to prevent or reverse discrimination at the local level.
During the reporting period, President Putin spoke out several times on the need to combat interethnic and interreligious intolerance, notably during the September 2005 UN General Assembly and during a February 2006 session of the Interior Ministry Council. He publicly condemned the January 2006 attack on a Moscow synagogue.
Officials met regularly during the reporting period with Rabbi Berl Lazar. In a January 2006 meeting, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the MFA was trying to fine-tune international dialogue dealing with the issues of how xenophobia and extremism can be countered at the international level. Lavrov also spoke out strongly against the January 2006 Moscow synagogue attack, stating that the root causes of xenophobia and anti-Semitism are deeper than law-enforcement agencies can cope with and that better education by the government religious groups, and public organizations could help address the problem. In a March 2005 meeting, President Putin pledged to make the fight against anti-Semitism a Government priority, and in an October 2004 meeting, he expressed support for the revival of Jewish communities. He also denounced anti-Semitism in several press interviews, usually to foreign media or while traveling outside the country. In April 2005 Rabbi Lazar met with Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov to discuss anti-Semitism and the state of Moscow's Jewish community. Luzhkov expressed concern about the growing number of extremist organizations and pledged the city's cooperation in fighting extremism. In April 2005, President Putin became the first Russian leader ever to visit Israel.
In March 2004, prominent rabbis Berl Lazar and Pinchas Goldschmidt came together to call on the Government to better define the meaning of "extremism." Lazar and Goldschmidt said that law enforcers were prone to dismiss anti-Semitic actions as simple hooliganism to avoid calling attention to their region as extremist-oriented and/or to consciously protect extremist groups with which they sympathized.
During the reporting period, new, more rigorous amendments to the existing Law on Countering Extremist Activity were working their way through the Federal Assembly, continuing the initiative begun by the March 2004 call by then Minister for Nationalities Vladimir Zorin, who called anti-Semitism and xenophobia major threats to the country, requiring stricter enforcement of the existing statutes outlawing extremism, such as Article 282 of the Criminal Code (which criminalizes the incitement of ethnic hatred). He also called for more programs to educate the public about anti-Semitism and to promote tolerance. Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliyev became the first high-level government official to acknowledge the existence of right-wing extremist youth groups. Combating this extremism was one of the top priority tasks for the MVD and FSB, he stated. These statements marked a positive step toward the Government's willingness to prosecute those who commit hate crimes, although few concrete moves have been made to solve many high-profile cases.
The Government does not require religious instruction in schools, but it continues to allow public usage of school buildings after hours for the ROC to provide religious instruction on a voluntary basis. The Government has backed off from a controversial proposal to introduce an optional course on the national level, "Foundations of Orthodox Culture," using a textbook that detailed Orthodox Christianity's contribution to the country's culture, with descriptions of some minority religions that members of those religions found objectionable. Although some schools still used the text, the Ministry of Education rejected further editions and circulation. Nevertheless, a significant number of regions continued to offer in public schools a course on Orthodoxy and may continue to do so because municipal administrations make school curriculum decisions. On the federal level, the Governmental Commission for the Affairs of Religious Associations at its December 21, 2005, session chaired by Minister of Culture Sokolov, supported, among other issues, the proposal of the Ministry of Culture to grant religious educational institutions the right to train public school teachers of religion. The proposal to teach "world religions" or a course on Orthodoxy in the schools remained controversial among experts, including those in the ROC. Nevertheless, the ROC in some communities (Kaluga Oblast and Yekaterinburg) was training local teachers in summer courses providing teachers with certification to teach "Foundations of Orthodox Culture." Some regions have begun offering a class on "History of Religion," a proposal that Education Minister Andrey Fursenko suggested but had not introduced nationally.
In July 2005 the subscriber services of satellite broadcasters NTV-Plus and Stream TV launched Spas (Savior) television channel, the first one in the country devoted to religion. It devotes 40 percent of its sixteen daily broadcasting hours to Russian Orthodox themes, with the rest of the time for general interest talk shows, documentaries, and educational programming. An advisory board including members of the parliament and senior figures from the Orthodox Church sets the channel's agenda and decides on programming strategies.
The constitution mandates the availability of alternative military service to those who refuse to bear arms for religious or other reasons of conscience. The law on alternative civil service took effect in January 2004, and two supplements to the law were issued in March 2004. The first supplement listed 722 organizations to which authorities may assign draftees for alternative service, and the second listed 283 activities that qualified. In June 2004 Prime Minister Fradkov signed regulations on the implementation of the law on alternative civilian service. According to the regulations, the standard alternative service term is forty-two months - versus the regular service term of twenty-four months - but the term is shorter, thirty-six months, if the draftee is assigned to a military organization. The required service for university graduates is twenty-one and eighteen months, respectively, in these situations. Some human rights groups have complained that the extended length of service for draftees requesting alternative assignments acts as a punishment for those who exercise their convictions.
The authorities permit Orthodox chapels and priests on army bases and also give Protestant groups access to military facilities, although on a limited basis. Authorities largely ban Islamic services in the military and generally do not give Muslim conscripts time for daily prayers or alternatives to pork-based meals. Some Muslim recruits serving in the army have reported that their fellow servicemen insulted and abused them on the basis of their religion.
In June 2004 authorities closed the federally targeted program on tolerance and anti-extremism ahead of its original 2005 end date. The program called for a large number of interagency measures, such as the review of federal and regional legislation on extremism, mandatory training for public officials to promote ethnic and religious tolerance, and new materials for use in public educational institutions.
With the registration of the Diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk in August 2005, the Roman Catholic Church completed the process of registration of the four existing Catholic dioceses (Moscow, Saratov, Irkutsk, and Novosibirsk). In 2003 President Putin stated publicly that secular authorities would do everything in their power to improve relations between the ROC and the Vatican.
Officials have encouraged a revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia with state subsidies for building Buddhist temples and training monks. The Government issued the Dalai Lama a visa, reversing previous denials of his visa requests...