Although the Russian Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the government generally respects this right in practice, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report, Russia’s 1997 religion law "seriously disadvantages religious groups that are new to the country by making it difficult for them to register as religious organizations." Unregistered groups lack the legal status necessary to establish bank accounts, own property, invite foreign guests, publish literature, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, and among the armed forces.
Under current law, Russian authorities may seek to ban a religious organization considered a threat to society. Since 1998, the Moscow prosecutor’s office has been trying to outlaw the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The suit was dismissed in February 2001, but a new trial opened in October 2001 and is still ongoing. Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseyva and the Keston Institute have criticized the litigation as part of a campaign of oppression.
Another group facing obstruction is the Salvation Army. It has made repeated attempts to reregister, but Moscow city authorities allege that the organization’s documentation is insufficient. The city also claims that the Salvation Army is a paramilitary organization. In March 2002, Russia’s constitutional court ruled that the Moscow city court had no grounds for closing the local branch of the Salvation Army. But the Moscow city court has not yet rescinded its order to close the charitable organization.
Even churches -- other than the Russian Orthodox Church -- often face legal discrimination in Russia. This is especially evident with regard to foreign clergy. In April 2002, a Roman Catholic bishop and priest discovered while traveling that the Russian authorities had arbitrarily canceled their visas. Many foreign Catholic clergy do not leave Russia over concerns they would not be allowed to return. An estimated eighty-five percent of Catholic clergy in Russia are foreigners.
It is clear that the practice in Russia of requiring religious groups to register is by its nature subject to abuse. While the Russian Orthodox Church has deep cultural and historical roots in Russia, this should not be used as a pretext for restricting the growth of other religions. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, no creed or tradition should ever be used to sanction religious intolerance.