Concern for religious groups under new Russian law

By staff writers
December 7, 2006

Concern has been raised over whether a new law in Russia will have an impact on religious organizations there - writes Linda Bloom, a New York-based journalist for the United Methodist Church.

According to Forum 18 News Service, which focuses on issues of religious freedom, religious organizations could be affected by amendments to several laws, signed by President Vladimir Putin last January (2006), that were meant to pertain to social and non-commercial entities.

The Federal Registration Service is requiring religious groups to submit the first annual accounts of their activity by next April, the news service reported. Official forms seek detailed information on events, meetings, projects and governing bodies as well as details on income and financial aid received.

But United Methodist Bishop Hans Vaxby of Moscow, whose church is one that could be impacted, said that he doesn't expect the new law to have a direct effect because the United Methodist Church is registered under the Law of Religious Freedom, not the Law of Nongovernmental Organizations.

He noted that while some have said the new NGO law would supersede the religious freedom law and that its reporting requirements could be applied to religious groups, "we haven't seen anything of that. As religious organizations, our local churches already submit an annual report to the local representatives of the Ministry of Justice. I imagine that for local churches without a denominational organization, the case is different."

Methodism was re-established in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The denomination's Eurasia Conference was established in 1997 and now includes five annual (regional) conferences. The Russia Initiative, sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in the USA, is a partnership among annual conferences, congregations and institutions aimed at church growth and development in the region.

Bishop Vaxby conceded that Protestant churches often are regarded with suspicion in Russia and sometimes referred to as "sects." Most Russians still consider themselves as Orthodox even if they have no participation in the church.

"These things, in combination with a strong nationalistic mood, sometimes make local governments find ways to make it difficult for Protestant churches," he said. "There are political groups who would like to see the Russian Orthodox Church be the one and only church in their region and use their influence in that direction."

Such an attitude, Vaxby stressed, does not come from the Russian Orthodox Church itself. "On the contrary, we recently experienced generous help from the Orthodox Church and deep Christian spirit in a difficult property case in the Volga District," he added.

"All things considered, I would say that our church is protected by the law, not threatened by it," Vaxby said.

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