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Russia: New Law Regulates Missionary Work

(July 14, 2016) On July 6, 2016, the President of the Russian Federation signed the recently adopted Federal Law No. 374 on Amending the Federal Law on Counterterrorism and Select Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Concerning the Creation of Additional Measures Aimed at Countering Terrorism and Protecting Public Safety. (Federal Law No. 374, PRAVO.GOV.RU (July 7, 2014) (official publication, in Russian).) The new Law contains a number of provisions affecting the activities of religious organizations, especially minority religious groups and those associated with foreign religious organizations or that rely on the work of non-Russian nationals.  The Law will enter into force on July 20, 2016.  (Id.)

Amendments to the Law on Religious Organizations

Article 5 of Law No. 374 amends the Federal Law on the Procedure for Entry into and Exit from the Russian Federation to prohibit the issuance of a regular, humanitarian entry visa to those individuals who enter the country “with the purpose of performing professional religious activities, including missionary activities, according to a labor or civil law contract concluded with a religious organization.” (Id.)  The legal basis of such contracts is established by separate amendments made by the new Law to the Federal Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (Law on Religious Organizations).

Amendments to the Law on Religious Organizations are outlined in article 8 of Law No. 374, which states:

  • Missionary activities cannot be conducted on behalf of a representative office of a foreign religious organization. (Law No. 374, art. 8, § 1.)
  • Literature and printed, audio, and video materials issued by a religious organization and distributed within the framework of its missionary work must be marked by the issuing religious organization and bear its name. (Id. § 2.)
  • The currently existing provision that gives religious organizations an exclusive right to invite foreign nationals to perform religious work for them according to federal legislation is amended to provide the following: “Religious organizations have the exclusive right to invite foreign nationals for the purposes of conducting professional religious activities, including missionary work, under labor or civil law contracts concluded with these organizations.” (Id. § 3.)
  • A new chapter on “missionary activities” added to the Law on Religious Organizations defines such activities as

the work of a religious association aimed at distributing information about its own religious beliefs among people who are not followers of this religious association, with the purpose of involving these people in the membership of the religious association, as conducted by a religious association or authorized individuals or legal entities publicly, with the use of mass media, Internet, or other legal means. (Id. § 4.)

Rules for Missionary Work

The newly passed amendments allow persons to perform missionary activities without restriction in religious buildings that belong to religious organizations or that are legally provided to them, on plots of land where such buildings are located, in buildings owned by or provided to organizations established by religious organizations, and on land owned by or provided to religious organizations; at places of pilgrimage, cemeteries, and crematoria; and in buildings of educational organizations historically used to conduct religious rites. Missionary activities are not allowed in residential spaces or in buildings or on land belonging to another religious association without the written consent of that religious association’s leadership.  (Id.)  The new Law also amends the Residential Code to prohibit the rezoning of residential premises into nonresidential premises for the purpose of conducting religious activity.  (Id. art. 14, § 2.)

Law No. 374 specifies who can perform missionary work and what kinds of documents authorize such work; however, these rules do not apply to missionary work performed in areas where such work is allowed without restrictions. The Law also specifies how and where foreign citizens and stateless individuals can perform missionary work in Russia.  Generally, these activities are limited to the territory where a religious group on behalf of which the missionary activity is performed has a state registration or within the limits of a religious organization’s territorial sphere of activity as defined by its registration.  (Id. art. 14, § 4.)

The Law prohibits missionary activities on behalf of a religious association whose work in Russia has been terminated or suspended by a court or that is recognized as contradicting the law. The Law specifically prohibits conducting missionary work that promotes violations of law and order or advocates extremist activities; destroys families; violates the individual rights and freedoms of citizens; aims to harm public morals and a person’s health; restricts access to education; supports suicide or the refusal of medical assistance; forces its members to donate their property to a religious association; makes use of narcotics, other prohibited substances, or hypnosis; requires the performance of lewd activities; or instigates the performance of other illegal activities by individuals.  (Id.)

Prescribed Punishments

Law No. 374 makes religious associations responsible for missionary work conducted on their behalf or by persons authorized by such religious associations and provides for new misdemeanors under the Code of Administrative Violations. (Id.)  Fines, seizure of property, and deportation (if the violation was conducted by a foreigner or stateless person) are prescribed for the distribution of religious literature and other materials without the proper markings and in violation of the rules concerning the performance of missionary work.  The fines are increased by up to 1,000,000 rubles (about US$16,000) over current levels.  (Id. art. 11, § 1(b).)

Expert Opinion

According to the SOVA Center, a Russian human rights organization, these amendments may affect unregistered religious groups as well as registered Protestant and other minor Christian groups. Some experts suggest that even Orthodox Christian missionaries may experience difficulties under the new law.  (On Friday, Duma Will Pass Two of Its Toughest Laws, MEEDUZA.IO (June 22, 2016) (in Russian).)

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated, “under the guise of confronting terrorism,” this Law “would grant authorities sweeping powers to curtail civil liberties, including setting broad restrictions on religious practices that would make it very difficult for religious groups to operate.” (Press Release, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Russia: USCIRF Condemns Enactment of Anti-Terrorism Laws, (July 8, 2016), USCIRF website.)

According to the Public Opinion Foundation, a major Russian polling organization, in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, 64% of Russians professed Russian Orthodoxy, 1% belonged to other Christian denominations, 6% were Muslim, 1% followed other religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism), 4% did not define their religious affiliation, and about 25% were nonbelievers. (How Many Russians Believe in God, Attend Temple, and Pray, FOM.RU (June 14, 2013) (in Russian).)