CRS Report for Congress
Russia’s Religion Law:
Assessments and Implications
Jim Nichol
Analyst in Foreign Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
This short report provides an overview and assessment of the Russian religion law.
On September 26, 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the religion bill into law,
and religious groups are endeavoring to register by the December 31, 1999 deadline.
The Administration and Congress have urged Russia to uphold its international
commitments to religious freedom. Omnibus Appropriations for FY1999 (P.L. 105-277;
including foreign operations appropriations) prohibits Freedom Support Act aid to
Russia unless the President determines and certifies that the Russian government has not
practiced religious discrimination in violation of its international commitments. On April

15, 1999, the President determined that the Russian government had not discriminated,

but stated that the issue requires close monitoring. This report may be updated.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most people in Russia have eschewed
atheism and professed at least nominal adherence to a religious faith. Although most
Russians profess to be Russian Orthodox, there has been an explosive growth in
membership of other faiths, including those relatively new to Russia, and in the work of
foreign missionaries. Faced with this activity, the Russian Orthodox Church has been at
the forefront in lobbying the Russian government and legislature to impose restrictions on
what it widely defines as “false faiths.” Many hardliners, ultranationalists, and others in
Russia also have argued that many faiths and foreign missionaries threaten Russia’s
“traditional” cultural and religious values. Elements of the Russian government have been
sympathetic to these views.
Passage of the Religion Bill. In the latest of several attempts to amend the existing,
relatively liberal, 1990 religious law, Communist deputy Viktor Zorkaltsev and the
government co-sponsored a bill “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association”
which received its “first reading” (introduction) in July 1996. The bill was criticized by
Yeltsin at that time as unconstitutional. In June 1997, the bill was reported to the floor
for its “second reading” (substantive debate). Zorkaltsev stated that the bill, totally recast

Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

as a replacement to the 1990 law, would introduce state control over “pseudoreligious”
and “destructive cults,” which are “tearing the fabric of society.” The bill was quickly and
overwhelmingly approved by the legislature, but Yeltsin vetoed it on July 22, 1997, rather
than sign it into law. As he explained, the bill did not respect constitutional provisions
prohibiting the government from giving preferences to one faith or another, and did not
accord with Russia’s international commitments. However, he also agreed that a strong
law was needed “to protect the moral and spiritual health of Russian citizens and put up
secure barriers against the infiltration of radical religious sects.” Zorkaltsev and some
other Duma leaders denounced Yeltsin’s veto as allowing Western influences to “trample
on Russia” and “brainwash the younger generation,” alluding to political and generational
divisions in Russia which also animated advocacy for the bill.
Advocates of the bill strongly urged Yeltsin to soften his objections. In talks
between Yeltsin and Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexey II on August 6, 1997, Yeltsin
reportedly agreed to support major provisions of the bill backed by the Patriarch. Andrey
Loginov, presidential advisor on domestic affairs and executive secretary of the
presidential Council on Relations with Religious Associations, played a primary role in
guiding the deliberations within the government. Reportedly, the draft bill that reached
Yeltsin did not take into account concerns raised with the Council by emissaries of the
Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, and Adventist communities. Yeltsin approved the draft,
although it was little changed from the version he had vetoed, the State Duma
overwhelmingly approved it with few changes, the Federation Council unanimously
followed suit, and the bill was signed into law by Yeltsin on September 26, 1997.
Key Features. The main characteristics of the law are as follows. (Some
characteristics that raised initial Western concern appear to have been partly addressed
during implementation — see below.)
!It affirms the separation of church and state and freedom of religious opinion,
including nonbelief. The preamble mentions Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and
“Christianity” as part of Russia’s heritage. However, it also highlights “the special
role of Orthodoxy in the history of Russia and in the establishment and
development of its spirituality and culture.” Beyond mentioning “Christianity,” the
preamble does not cite other faiths long practiced in Russia, such as Roman
Catholicism, Baptism, or Pentecostalism.
!The bill requires the registration of all religious associations by December 31, 1999,
by local and central offices of the Ministry of Justice. A congregation must register
at the local level. A faith that has congregations in two or more regions or
republics, which often occurs, must also register with the central Justice Ministry.
!The bill affirms the 1990 law in distinguishing between “religious groups” and
“religious organizations,” but changes registration requirements and the rights of
the former. “Religious organizations” are those that have been registered by the
Russian government. In order to be registered, a group must prove that it has
existed in Russia for at least the past 15 years. Groups existing for at least 50 years
with congregations registered in at least half of the 89 federal subunits, or if
ethnically-based, in at least three subunits, are accorded the special status of “All-
Russian religious organizations.”

!If registration is denied, the rights of a religious association are circumscribed to
those allowed to “religious groups,” or it may even be banned by court order.
“Religious groups” may choose whether to inform the authorities about their
“formation and commencement of activity,” depending on whether they seek later
to become “religious organizations.” “Religious groups” are forbidden to own
property, publish religious literature, host foreign guests, set up schools, or carry
out charitable work, among other restrictions.
!A change introduced by Yeltsin (Article 27(3)) permits religious associations that
cannot prove through “documentation” that they have existed for15 years in Russia
to appeal for provisional, yearly registration. If granted, they are allowed to
conduct charity work, but the law otherwise treats them as “religious groups”
prohibited from carrying out many activities.
!Besides the requirement that a “religious organization” show that it has existed for
15 years, registration is dependent on governmental approval of the aims and
activities of the group. A group will not be registered if it does not abide by all
provisions of the constitution and laws or if its petition “contains information that
has not been confirmed” (does not reflect what the government views as the real
aims and activities of the group).
!The new law allows a foreign “religious organization” to open offices in Russia
upon the approval of the authorities. However, they are forbidden to engage in any
“cultural and other religious activity.” If a Russian “religious organization” wishes
to sponsor a foreign group, it must provide the government with the charter and
confirmation of the group’s legality abroad, spell out the purpose of the group’s
activities in Russia, and disclose its beliefs, history, and practices.
Areas of Concern. Some features of the bill appear unobjectionable, including
provisions restating a Constitutional provision that alternative service be provided for
conscientious objectors, and proclaiming the protected status of the confessor-confessee
relationship. The bill also states that, if a religious association is denied registration, it can
appeal the decision in court. Once a “religious organization” is registered, it has legal
rights to own buildings, hold meetings, publish literature, run schools and businesses, and
carry out charitable work within the territory where it is recognized to operate.
On the other hand, religious rights concerns are heightened by vaguely written and
contradictory provisions that appear to greatly increase the role of the government in
regulating religious practice. All religious associations must report to the authorities,
except those groups never intending to seek the full rights accorded by registration.
Reports include changes in a “religious organization’s” charter or activities, and a report
every two years to renew its registration.
Expert councils composed of representatives of privileged faiths will help judge the
registration materials as necessary, furthering the possibility of bias against some faiths.
Registration may be denied or revoked, and religious groups may be proscribed, based on
a broad but vague list of offenses that some worry will be used to single out some faiths,
including violating public order, promoting “religious enmity,” using drugs and “hypnosis”
in services, performing lewd and “illegal” actions, and promoting non-medical forms of
healing. Offenses are referred to the courts, which may order the “liquidation” or

“prohibition” of the faith and possible prosecution of its members. Other provisions seem
to restrict the freedom of a religious association to disseminate its faith to non-members,
especially minors, or to set up new congregations where it is not already registered.
Opponents of the law have stated that language seeming to give special status to
certain faiths violates the Constitution. Article 14 of the Constitution stipulates that
“religious associations are separated from the state and are equal before the law,” and
Article 19 prohibits the restriction of citizens’ rights on the grounds of religious affiliation.
Article 28 stipulates that “each person is guaranteed freedom ... to choose, hold, and
disseminate religious and other convictions and to act in accordance with them.”
Opponents of language that seems to give special status to certain faiths also can point to
the Constitution’s Article 29, which prohibits propaganda of religious supremacy. Many
in Russia and elsewhere have criticized the law’s apparent violation of Russia’s
international commitments, including the Helsinki Final Act and Vienna Concluding
Document, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights.
The provision requiring that foreign representatives may not engage in religious
activities threatens to restrain the over 4,000 foreign missionaries working in Russia. The
provision that all “religious organizations” be headed by and composed of Russian citizens
or permanent legal residents affects local congregations that are headed by or composed
of foreigners or some faiths where the parent church or center is abroad. In the latter
cases, a congregation must have the foreign center provide Russian authorities with its
charter and a confirmation of its legality by the home government. The provision that
“religious groups” may only be composed of citizens seems to restrict religious
observance by non-citizens.
In January 1998, regulations for reviewing applications for registration of branches
of foreign religious associations were promulgated, followed in March 1998 by regulations
for other religious associations. Disappointingly to many in the West, the regulations
closely follow the letter of the law. Guidelines for implementation issued by the Justice
Ministry provide a more liberal interpretation of the law and regulations, but the guidelines
are not legally binding. The guidelines suggest that most religious organizations registered
under the 1990 law will be re-registered, that the 15-year rule will not apply to centralized
religious organizations and their branches, and that unofficial documents such as news
clipping will be used to satisfy the 15-year rule. Several registration decisions made by
early 1999 have followed these guidelines, easing some concerns about how harshly the
law would be implemented. These registrations include those of Pentecostal, Roman
Catholic, Mormon, and Seventh-Day Adventist groups. However, all faiths have not
received similar treatment and some localities do not accept the guidelines. Schismatic
and independent religious associations that cannot meet the 15-year rule have faced hard
choices between affiliating with centralized religious organizations they may not totally
agree with doctrinally or risking liquidation. Local religious groups that are awaiting
registration face criminal charges if they carry out worship activities in the meantime.
About one-third of Russia’s federal subunits have passed laws restricting certain
religious activities. While the new federal law supersedes local laws, it also provides a
major role for the localities in judging whether groups should be registered. Some
localities have viewed the new law as a “green light” to restrict religious activities of
which they disapprove. Foreign missionaries faced an attempt last year to force them to

leave Russia every three months to renew their visas. The authorities reinstated the one-
year visa after much protest, but the status of missionaries remains worrisome. Petitions
by individuals and groups to Russia’s Constitutional Court to examine and overturn
objectionable parts of the law (such as Article 27(3)) have not yet been considered.
U.S. Response
Until passage of the new law, the United States generally praised religious freedom
in Russia while monitoring Russian behavior and urging it to abide by international human
rights commitments. During the April 1996 U.S.-Russia Summit in Moscow, President
Clinton stated that “it is a real sign of the health of the Russian democracy that religion
is respected and people are free to pursue it and express their honest convictions.” In
November 1996, the Administration formed an Advisory Committee to the Secretary of
State on Religious Freedom Abroad, which has counseled the Administration on the
ramifications of the passage of Russia’s religion bill. At the September 1998 U.S.-Russia
summit, President Clinton called on Russia to uphold religious freedom. Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright, National Security Council Director for Russia William
Courtney, and Ambassador at Large for the NIS Stephen Sestanovich also have worked
with U.S. religious groups to exhort Russian authorities to uphold religious freedom.
Congress has had some long-term concerns about religious freedom in Russia and
the former Soviet Union, including those reflected in the Lautenberg amendment in 1989
(P.L. 101-167, Sec. 599D), which established enhanced opportunities for Soviet Jews,
Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics, and Ukrainian Orthodox Church members to
qualify for admission to the United States as refugees. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment
(P.L. 93-618, tying trade to Soviet emigration standards) has required the President to
report on Russian emigration policies, which includes assessments of religious tolerance.
The Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe has held hearings
dealing with religious freedom in Russia and other New Independent States of the former
Soviet Union. Congress also has raised concerns about acts of religious intolerance such
as Russian government moves in 1996 against Jewish organizations and negative remarks
about certain faiths made by then-Security Council head Aleksandr Lebed. The issue of
religious persecution worldwide (P.L. 105-292; signed into law on October 27, 1998), has
included discussions of possible repercussions of Russia’s religion law.
During and after passage of Russia’s religion bill, many in Congress sent letters to
President Yeltsin and other officials urging Russia to uphold religious freedom. The
Senate approved S.Con.Res. 58 on November 8, 1997, condemning the potential
restrictiveness of the Russian religion law and calling for Russia to uphold its
commitments to religious freedom. Members of Congress also have visited Russia to
make their concerns known. Among other proposals, some Members of Congress and
others urged Russia to establish an ombudsman office or other means to monitor religious
rights violations during implementation of the religion law. While an omsbudsman was
not appointed, these proposals may have influenced the formation of an Oversight
Working Group, chaired by Loginov.
The FY1998 Foreign Aid Appropriations Act (P.L. 105-118) contained a provision
prohibiting Freedom Support Act aid to Russia unless the President certified by May 1998
that the Russian government “has implemented no statute, executive order, regulation, or
similar government action that would discriminate, or would have as its principal effect

discrimination, against religious groups ... in violation of accepted international
agreements on human rights,” to which Russia is a party (de-nuclearization aid is not
affected). In introducing the amendment in July 1997, Senator Gordon Smith stated that
Congress should send “a strong signal to President Yeltsin that American tax dollars will
not find their way to support any country that treats religious freedom in such a manner.”
Omnibus Appropriations for FY1999 (H.R. 4328; including foreign operations;
signed into law on October 21, 1998, P.L. 105-277) repeats this provision, again directing
an aid cutoff unless the President determines by April 1999 that Russia is not violating its
international human rights commitments. In the April 15, 1999 determination and
justification, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (by delegated authority) stated that
Russia had applied the religion law “in a manner that is not in conflict with its international
obligations on religious freedom. However, this issue requires continued and close
monitoring.” She called on the Russian government to ensure that the localities uphold
religious freedom and urged the ultimate replacement of the law. A major concern is the
slow pace of registrations — by the end of March 1999, only 700 out of over 17,000
associations had been registered — prompting Secretary Albright to urge extending the
deadline for registration and ensuring full rights for associations until they are registered.
While Russia’s central government policy is not directly inimical to religious freedom,
intolerance by many individuals, groups, and local officials is rising. The State
Department was aware of about thirty cases of violations of religious freedom by local
officials. Recent cases of concern include prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow,
raids on Scientology groups, harassment of Catholic parishes, and rising overt anti-
Semitism. Anti-Americanism among some Russians, heightened by their objections to
NATO airstrikes in Yugoslavia, has contributed to some harassment of missionaries and
faiths deemed “American”-linked. Both the Administration and Yeltsin have condemned
anti-Semitic statements by prominent Communist Party politicians. Hardline Communist
Albert Makashov, a Duma deputy and Gorbachev’s former nemesis, stated in October

1998 that Jews were seeking to destroy the Russian “folk” and should be “rounded up,”

and in February 1999 that Jews were “impudent and repulsive.” His remarks were echoed
by Communist deputy Viktor Ilukhin, head of the Duma Security Committee. Their party
leader, Zyuganov, in effect defended such remarks in December 1998, warning that most
Russians “see that the Zionization of Russian state power has been one of the reasons
behind the current catastrophic state of the country ... and the extinction of its
population.” Secretary Albright, during her trip to Moscow in January 1999, repeatedly
urged Russians to uphold religious freedom and strongly denounced anti-Semitism.
On December 11, 1998, Members of Congress sent a letter to Russian Communist
Party Chairman Gennadiy Zyuganov expressing concern about his “inadequate response”
to anti-Semitic remarks by a member of his party. The letter noted that, if the Communist
Party expects to be accepted by the international community and have inter-parliamentary
ties, it should condemn racist statements by its members. On March 23, 1999, H.Con.Res.

37 (Representative Christopher Smith) was unanimously approved, condemning anti-

Semitic statements made by Duma members. A similar S.Con.Res. 19 was introduced by
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell on March 17, 1999. In supporting the bill, Senator
Frank Lautenberg also stated that “recent events in Russia convince me my [1989]
legislation remains very necessary.”