Last week, U.S. Department of State published International Religious Report. It compilers listed Russia among the countries that treat non-traditional religions with prejudice. In his interview to Interfax-Religion Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar spoke on correspondence of the conclusions of the Report to reality.
- How does the image of the situation regarding freedom of religion in Russia, as presented in the report, reflect reality? How true is this report?
- I have become thoroughly acquainted with this report and I have to say that, although its conclusions raise serious doubts for me, I believe the analytic part of this document deserves a very positive mark. One has to thank analysts for such a job. Last years’ report focused on the State Department's negative perspectives on the Russian government's actions and was reduced to naming incidents where religious freedoms were infringed, without analyzing continual changes or the associated reaction of the authorities. In the report for 2005, I was satisfied to see qualitative changes. The document is not reduced to simply naming particular conflicts but monitors general tendencies in the approach of Russian authorities to the freedom of religion. Each incident was followed by a report on the reaction of authorities, results of lawsuits, and so on.
As far as I can see, the authors of this report realized the situation with respect to providing for the freedom of religion in Russia was improving. This is clearly written in regards to all traditional religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – as well as regarding an array of other religious groups and communities. The report recognized the existence of 21,664 officially registered religious organizations in Russia, belonging to more than 260 religions and confessions. Altogether, the authors conveyed that only 11,525 out of these organizations belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. The document states that legal regulations permitting the ban of religious organizations is being applied extremely rarely, even with respect to those churches and sects that experience problems with local authorities: it is thus stated that the Jehovah's Witnesses, which has been denied registration in Moscow, nevertheless has 397 branches in other regions; and 50 Mormons' organizations have also been registered. The report also emphasized that religious organizations are benefiting from tax reductions.
The authors of this report also positively evaluate the role of the Russian President and the Council on Cooperation with Religious Organizations concerning the promotion of the freedom of religion. The report also analyzed the situation regarding the "letter of 500", which was publicly denunciated not only by President Putin but also by the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
Here, I would like to emphasize that President Putin demonstrates great interest in the life of Jewish communities in Russia. Last year, we had several private meetings and conversations. This year, the President took part in a memorial event in Auschwitz commemorating the 1.5 million Jews killed there by Nazis. In April, Russian President paid an official visit to Israel, the first ever made in the entire history of diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel. All these facts were highlighted in the report issued by the State Department of the USA.
The authors also give a positive mark to the activity of the Minister on Nationalities' Affairs, Vladimir Zorin, considering him to be an avid fighter against anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and to the activity of the Human Rights Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin.
The report also underlines positive changes regarding the restitution of property to religious communities in Russia, providing examples of property being transferred back to Buddhists, Catholics and other relatively small religious groups. The report places a special emphasis on the cooperation of Russian authorities in returning former Synagogues to Jewish communities.
The authors of this report state that there are no prisoners in Russia that were condemned for religious activity.
In short, experts from the State Department have done a great deal of work on collecting and processing data, while their analytic work wholly deserves praise. Nevertheless, I am surprised with the conclusions deducted from this analysis. If the dynamics are so positive and if, in a period of 15 years, Russia has grown from a dictatorship of aggressive atheism to become a state that realizes the need to restore religious spirituality and provide thousands of religious communities with religious freedom – then it is hard to understand why, in its analysis, the State Department depicts our country as 'unfavorable'. I believe this conclusion is made due to some kind of inertia in thinking, since, while recognizing the many positive changes, we are still being considered from a position of times past. This is, of course, not Russia's problem.
- What is your evaluation of the freedom of worship in Russia today?
- Of course, I have no authority to judge the entire spectrum of issues regarding the religious situation in Russia, since I am only occupied with questions concerning the Jewish community. As regards the freedom of worship for Jews – it really exists in Russia. As for other religions – it would be more correct to ask their spiritual leaders.
Are there problems? Of course, there are many. The main problem is obvious. In early 1990s, the 'iron curtain' of aggressive atheism fell. At that moment, Russia became a desirable target for all sorts of charlatans, speculators and even terrorists, disguised in religious clothing. As we know, Muslims often face problems with false imams, mainly from abroad, announcing jihad and summoning their citizens to terror. The Orthodox Church is also forced to deal with tens of totalitarian sects, which claim that they are "true Christians"…
This problem also exists in most democratic countries, but even there, authorities are forced to sometimes resolve such problems with repressive methods – remember the famous story with Aum Sinrike. And now compare the situation in the West, where freedom of worship has existed for a long time, to the situation in our country, where the majority of people were, until recently, deprived of the opportunity to gain any notion of God and religion! There is no doubt that the state has to create some regulating mechanism to defend its citizens from all sorts of false gurus. Of course, the very fact that such a mechanism exists constitutes a certain limitation on the freedom of religion. This is absolutely necessary, first and foremost, for the convenience of people themselves.
For example, the Public Prosecutor's Office has just ordered a ban on the so-called 'Tserkov Belovodye' (the 'Whitewater' Church). Why? It appears that this sect was not only practicing sadism and orgies, but that they also promoted, under the guise of religion, elements of the Nazi ideology. If somebody said to me that this is a limitation on the freedom of worship, I would answer "if this is a limitation, then I am in favor of such a limitation".
Of course, we have plenty of other problems. It is impossible to restore what the atheists had destroyed over the course of 75 years. By saying 'restore' I mean the restoration of lost spirituality (this loss not being the fault of the people), as well as the physical restoration of houses of worship, community centers, religious schools, kindergartens, communal charity and many other things, which have existed in the West since long ago, but which are still new for the current generation of people living in Russia. But we are moving in the correct direction, and we are grateful to the authors of this report for having collected so many facts to prove this.