Freedom of religion, says President George W. Bush, “is the first freedom of the human soul. . . . We must stand for that freedom in our country,” says Mr. Bush. “We must speak for that freedom in the world.” That is why the U.S. State Department issues an annual report on the status of religious freedom in countries around the world.
According to this year’s report, the Russian government continues to permit the generally free practice of religion for the majority of people. But some Russian federal agencies and many local authorities continue to restrict the rights of various religious minorities. Before last year, the cause of most complaints was a complex 1997 law that limits the rights, activities, and status of new religious groups -- those that have been in the country for less than fifteen years. More recently, complaints stemming from the requirement to register or re-register under the 1997 law have eased somewhat. But some groups continue to be denied registration in some localities.
Under Russia’s 1997 law, religious groups defined and registered as “organizations” have more rights than those defined simply as “groups.” Moreover, registration must be done at both the federal and local levels. Even if a “group” is recognized as an “organization” and registered by the federal government, it may be denied registration at the local level. In some regions, local officials have repeatedly rejected registration attempts by Mormons, Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. In addition, some local governments have prevented religious minorities from using facilities suitable for large gatherings or have denied them permission to construct or lease buildings.
The religious freedom report says that Russian security services are increasingly treating the leaders of some minority religions as security threats. In addition, foreign religious workers often have difficulty obtaining visas with terms longer than three months. Russian authorities have denied or canceled visas for some Protestant clergy, the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama, and a number of Roman Catholic priests.
Although some federal authorities have taken positive steps, more needs to be done to protect the religious freedom of all people in Russia. As John Hanford, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said, “The United States remains steadfast in its resolve to stand with the persecuted and to speak out on behalf of those whose governments would silence them."