RUSSIAN lawmakers have postponed new controls on the activities of overseas-trained clergy, after their planned Bill was criticised by the country’s main religious groups in a rare show of unity.
The amendments to Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, originally set for their first State Duma reading in late September, would bar “religious personnel” who receive education abroad from ministering unless they first undergo “re-certification” by a Russian educational institution.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign-relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, told the TV channel Rossiya-24 last week, however, that the proposed measures should first gain approval from the country’s “traditional confessions” before being enacted.
A senior representative of the minority Roman Catholic Church in Russia warned that the Bill would place “top-quality priests with degrees from world-renowned universities” in the hands of Russian educational arbiters, and would require top church leaders to “return to a seminary for additional courses”.
“We agree priests coming to serve in Russia should be familiar with its history, culture, and religious heritage,” the Vicar-General of the Church’s Moscow-based Mother of God archdiocese, Fr Kirill Gorbunov, told the news agency RIA Novosti. “Until the law is violated, however, it should be up to the confessions to monitor this. Attempts by the State to regulate the process, far from producing effective solutions, will merely fuel intractable contradictions.”
An explanatory document said that the aim of the draft amendments, backed by President Putin’s government, was to prevent the foreign-educated clergy from “spreading religious extremist ideology”.
Critics warned, however, that the new rules were ill-defined and risked impeding legally functioning communities, as well as outlawed groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, three of whom were given prison sentences in Kamchatka on Tuesday.
The country’s once-persecuted Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist associations, who have relied heavily on overseas-trained ministers to rebuild their communities since Soviet rule, and still face problems in obtaining relevant visas and work permits, have voiced alarm over the Bill and commplaining of a lack of consultation.
The lead bishop of Russia’s Union of Evangelical Faith Christians, Sergei Ryakhovsky, cautioned that the planned curbs would “interfere with gospel preaching” and deal a “powerful blow” to Protestant organisations, without affecting underground groups already operating outside the law.
“It’s not clear how the State will evaluate spiritual educational institutions, while the idea of creating a register of approved foreign religious educational organisations doesn’t stand up to criticism,” Bishop Ryakhovsky told Novosti.
“This is interference in church affairs. Religious organisations can and should determine who has the right to preach, not officials.”
The head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s legal department, Abbess Ksenia Chernega, said that the Russian Orthodox Church “fully supported” other parts of the Bill, including clauses preventing the withdrawal of local religious groups from centralised denominations, and the misuse of Orthodox titles by commercial companies.
The Russian daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta also backed the proposed measures, arguing that the State had a right to “combat extremism” by monitoring the membership and activity of religious organisations that were eligible for official subsidies.