In late September 1997 the two houses of the Russian Parliament adopted legislation on religious freedom, and President Boris Yeltsin signed the legislation. According to the newly-adopted law the religions historically present in Russia are given full legal rights and privileges, while other religious groups are subjected to certain limits and faced with legal procedures connected with registration.
Since the liberation of Russia from oppressive anti-religious policies of communist rule, all religious communities and groups in Russia have experienced a revival of religious life and activity. First among these has been the Russian Orthodox Church, whose network of dioceses and parishes have experienced dramatic growth, and whose charitable and educational work has attempted to meet the opportunities and demands of the new religious liberty.
At the same time, numerous mission efforts have been undertaken in Russia by missionary groups, both Christian and non-Christian. These have often been high-profile, well-financed mission efforts bringing messages new to Russian society. In a country which was a closed, totalitarian society less than ten years ago, these missionary programs and “new religious movements” have naturally caused tensions and anxieties in Russian society. These tensions and anxieties are exacerbated by the absence of habits, legal precedent, customs and traditions of religious pluralism and democratic freedom.
The reaction of Russian society, as expressed in the new legislation on religion, is understandable, given the present situation. It may well be that steps should be taken to bring some order into the chaos of the post-Soviet, post-Communist public arena in Russia. Yet, as American Orthodox Christians, we are concerned that the legislation clearly gives opportunities for over-reaction by Russian society and the Russian state and carries within it the possibility of new suppression or religious liberty in various parts of Russia. As an American religious body, furthermore, the Orthodox Church in America sees two dangers in the present situation in Russia. The first is the risk of chaos and deep divisions provoked by insensitive and aggressive methods of religious mission and proselytism. The second is the temptation of suppressive policies on the part of the state and society, which in the long-run would have a negative impact also on the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church.
We hope that in Russia both of these extremes will be avoided by wise and restrained implementation of the new legislation, in compliance with the Russian Constitution and its principles of religious liberty. We hope that in the United States of America both government and religious communities will remain in a constructive dialogue and engagement with Russia, as Russia attempts to steer its course in a moderate and freedom-loving direction.