Russia: Persecution of missionaries on the increase

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By Victoria Arnold, Forum 18 —

Lawyer Anatoly Pchelinstev

Individuals of almost every religious affiliation continue to face prosecution under Russia’s “anti-missionary” legislation for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief. Despite a 2018 Constitutional Court decision which offered some clarification of what
“missionary activity” means, police and prosecutors continue to initiate cases to punish a wide range of activities, from advertising events online to holding ordinary worship services for fellow believers.

According to available court records, 142 prosecutions reached court
between January 2019 and June 2020.

The 142 prosecutions involved 125 individuals and 17 organizations. The
majority resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate
across the 18-month period of 91 per cent.

Ten of the foreign citizens convicted under Part 5 were also ordered
deported from Russia, with five being sent to detention centres before
their departure. One such detainee – 27-year-old Tajik citizen Fayzali
Kholmurodov – is still in a detention centre in Tula Region six months
after his February 2020 conviction, as the coronavirus pandemic has largely
closed Tajikistan’s borders (see below).

Despite the Constitutional Court’s definition of “missionary activity”, it
appears that almost any religious activity may still make people vulnerable
to prosecution.

“Such broad interpretation of the concept of missionary activity makes it
possible to qualify any dissemination of religious information and
literature by an individual as unlawful missionary activity,” lawyer
Anatoly Pchelintsev commented in an article for the Moscow-based Slavic
Centre for Law and Justice on 15 November 2019.

“This creates a dangerous precedent of infringement on the legitimate rights and freedoms of believers, and serves as a basis for unjustified administrative
prosecution.”

“The confusion of the law and the inability of courts to sort out this
situation give rise to perverse law enforcement practice and seriously
violate the right of citizens to constitutional freedom of conscience,”
Pchelintsev added.

Background

On 6 July 2016, President Vladimir Putin signed amendments to the Religion
Law imposing tight restrictions on the sharing of beliefs, including on
where and by whom they may be shared. The amendments effectively ban
broadly defined “missionary activity” by anyone without written permission
from an officially recognised religious association, and apparently any
activity performed by religious organizations not using their full legal
names.

The amendments also prohibit “missionary activity” on residential premises,
or by anyone who is a former member of an “extremist” religious
organisation, and allow wide scope for arbitrary official actions.

The amendments were introduced as part of an “anti-terrorism” package
proposed by United Russia Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor
Ozerov. Protests against the changes were widespread
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2246).

A 2015 amendment to the Religion Law required all unregistered religious
groups to notify the authorities (usually local branches of the Justice
Ministry) of their existence and activities
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2246). This includes
providing the names and addresses of all their members, and addresses where
any meeting takes place.

Although no explicit punishment currently exists for not submitting this
notification, Forum 18’s analysis of prosecutions under Administrative Code
Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5, shows that failure to do is frequently taken
as evidence of unlawful “missionary activity”.

The “anti-missionary” amendment is one of many pieces of civil and
administrative legislation which may be used to restrict, monitor, and
penalise the expression of freedom of religion and belief in Russia.

Baptist Union pastor Yury Korniyenko was fined 10,000 Roubles
under Article 5.26, Part 4 for leading a service in his community’s church.
The church met in a residential building owned by a church member in the
village of Verkhnebakansky, on the outskirts of Novorossiysk (Krasnodar
Region). This was despite the fact that no non-Baptists were present and
that Korniyenko had written authorisation to perform missionary activity
anyway. Novorossiysk city administration had banned the Baptists from using
the building for religious purposes as its land plot lay within a “zone of
education facilities and scientific complexes” established after its
construction (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2505).

Baptist house church in village of Verkhnebakansky

Religious profile

Prosecutions between January 2019 and June 2020 involved individuals or
organisations belonging to the following religious communities:

– Muslim – 62 (42 in 2019, 20 in 2020)

– Baptist (Council of Churches, Baptist Union, independent/unknown) – 29
(17, 12)

– Evangelical Protestant (including Pentecostals) – 22 (16, 6)

– Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna) – 8 (8, 0)

– Methodist – 3 (3, 0)

– Catholic – 2 (1, 1)

– Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) – 2 (2, 0)

– Seventh-day Adventist – 2 (2, 0)

– Buddhist – 1 (1, 0)

– Unknown faith – 11 (8, 3)

Catholic and Methodist prosecutions

In another potential shift, 2019 and the first half of 2020 saw the
first prosecutions known to Forum 18 of Catholics and Methodists under
Article 5.26, Part 4 or 5 (Catholic and Methodist churches have already
faced prosecution under Article 5.26, Part 3
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2474)).

Leningrad District Court in Kaliningrad fined Polish citizen Fr Andrzej
Zalewski, priest of the Nativity Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite,
30,000 Roubles under Article 5.26, Part 5, for conducting the Liturgy of St
John Chrysostom on premises belonging to the Caritas-West charity.
According to the verdict of 17 September 2019, police patrol officers
noticed “loud music” and “suspicious citizens” coming from the property. Fr
Zalewski had lodged an application to register the parish as a religious
organisation three days before the police visit, but it had not yet been
approved, thereby rendering the church’s lease invalid.

On 12 February 2020, Nikita Glazunov, leader of a traditionalist Catholic
religious group, the Society of Saint Pius X, was fined 5,000 Roubles at
Vakhitovsky District Magistrate’s Court No. 8 in Kazan (Republic of
Tatarstan). He had organised a Latin Mass in a hotel conference hall,
served by a “foreign preacher” who did not have written authorisation from
the group to perform missionary activity. According to the verdict, a
witness testified that the preacher had “spoken of the truth of Catholicism
in comparison with Orthodox Christianity”, and that Glazunov had
“approached him and invited him to take printed materials to familiarise
himself with their religious views”.

The Methodist Church of stantsiya Ugolnaya in Primorye Region was fined
100,000 Roubles on 15 May 2019 for organising the Far Eastern Conference
for Children’s Ministers without a formal lease on the sanatorium used.
Because the delegates included members of different churches and people who
had not specified their religious affiliation, Soviet District Magistrate’s
Court No. 24 in Vladivostok concluded that the conference constituted
“missionary activity”.

Others targeted

Oleg Kuzin, pastor of Ryazan Wesleyan Church, and his acquaintance Fyodor
Makarov were fined 5,000 Roubles each at October District Magistrate’s
Court No. 18 for distributing Gideon bibles outside a university. This was
despite their arguments that the New Testament was common to all Christians
and they were not attempting to involve anyone in any religious
association. Because both did, in fact, have written authorisation to carry
out missionary activity, they were acquitted on appeal.

Baptist G. Makiyev was charged under Article 5.26, Part 4 for leaving
copies of the magazine “Faith and life” on a table in a property where he
was doing building work, with a sign saying that anyone who wished could
take one. Makiyev’s lawyer pointed out that the magazine contained writing
by Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox authors, as well as art and fiction.
In acquitting Makiyev on 27 January 2020, the judge at Maysky District
Magistrate’s Court No. 1 (Republic of Kabardino-Balkariya) cited the March
2018 definition and noted that there was no evidence that Makiyev had
carried out (or aimed to carry out) any activities aimed at disseminating
information about any religion in a public place.

While 13 cases mentioning the Constitutional Court definition (11 in 2019,
two so far in 2020) represents an increase on 2018 (when this figure was
seven), the impact still appears to be minor.

“Difficulties remain in law enforcement practice,” lawyer Sergey Chugunov
remarked to Forum 18 on 6 August. “Despite the fact that the Constitutional
Court indicated that not all activities of a religious organisation are
missionary, in practice the [magistrates’ and district] courts make no
distinction, recognising all religious activities as missionary. Therefore,
this problem remains, and the number of such cases, if it is decreasing, is
only due to the fact that citizens have become more careful.”

Interpretation of the law remains broad

Despite the Constitutional Court’s 2018 definition of “missionary activity”
and its consideration by some judges, Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5 offer
officials many ways to punish the exercise of freedom of religion or
belief.

Firstly, investigators and prosecutors can still apply the concept of
“missionary activity” indiscriminately. Secondly, officials frequently
appear to disregard even the broad definition provided by the Religion Law
in favour of finding tangential violations, such as the lack of
notification of a religious group’s creation, even when no religious group
exists. Thirdly, the anti-missionary amendment is based on the presumption
that all religious activity should take place within the parameters of a
formally constituted religious organisation or group, and this has the
effect of penalising individual expressions of freedom of religion and
belief.

In commentary for the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice on 5 July 2019,
Mikhail Shakhov, President of the Guild of Experts on Religion and Law,
points out that no legal definitions exist of the terms “member”,
“participant”, and “follower” – all used in the anti-missionary
amendment> He also points out that no formal process exists of making a
person a member of a religious association (unless they are one of the
“founder members” (uchrediteli) named in an organisation’s charter).

This, Shakhov argues, “opens up ample opportunities for circumventing the
provisions” of Article 2, Paragraph 3 of the Religion Law, which declares
that “nothing in the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of
religion, and religious associations should be interpreted in the sense of
diminishing or infringing upon the rights of person and citizen to freedom
of conscience and freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the Constitution of
the Russian Federation or arising from international treaties of the
Russian Federation”.

Shakhov notes that the law implies that the outcome of missionary activity
is the inclusion of a person in the membership of a religious association
– so if someone is persuaded to follow Islam, for example, but does not
join a specific association, the process of persuasion is not technically
missionary activity. This has led to police and prosecutors “‘correcting’
the deficiencies of the law” by assuming any dissemination of beliefs to be
missionary activity.

Basis for prosecutions

The most common ground for prosecution (60 cases) is a lack of written
authorization from a religious organisation or group to carry out
missionary activity on its behalf. This assumes, firstly, that everyone
carrying out missionary activity must be representing a formally
constituted religious association, rather than simply sharing their own
beliefs (several defendants appear not to be members of any association);
and secondly, that any activity which individuals might perform on behalf
of (or merely in connection with) their religious communities is inherently
“missionary”.

Almost as common (52 cases) is the failure to submit notification to a
regional branch of the Justice Ministry of the existence of a religious
group (see below).

Among the cases found by Forum 18, other reasons given in verdicts include:
missionary activity on residential property – 17 cases; no right to use
the premises (e.g. by ownership, lease, agreement of free use) – 16
cases; an individual’s lack/loss of position as official representative or
clergy – 3 cases; missionary activity on another religious organisation’s
property – one case (although both organisations were Muslim and their
relationship is unclear); missionary activity among minors without parental
consent – one case.

In more than 30 cases, it was impossible to ascertain what reason police or
prosecutors had for initiating the prosecution, because no written court
decision was available, the court decision lacked detail, or the judge
deemed there to be no grounds at all, and therefore decided on acquittal.

These figures add up to more than the total number of prosecutions because
police and prosecutors often cite multiple violations. The commonest
combination is a failure to submit notification of the existence of a
religious group and (consequently) a lack of written authorisation from a
defendant’s (often non-existent) religious group to carry out missionary
activity.

Lack of religious group notification

Apart from the lack of written authorisation, the commonest reason behind
the prosecution of individuals is a presumed failure to submit notification
of the existence of a religious group
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2246) (even if the defendant
is not in fact a member of any religious group).

This is a particular problem for both independent and Council of Churches
Baptists, as well as, increasingly, for Muslims meeting to pray in homes or
workplaces. Council of Churches Baptists refuse on principle to seek any
kind of state registration, and argued publicly against the restrictions
imposed by the introduction of the group notification requirement in 2015.

On many occasions, there appears to be no reason that an individual should
have deemed notification necessary, e.g. when no group with consistent
membership and regular meetings exists at all, or when worship involves
only casual gatherings of friends at home.

There were 52 prosecutions for this lack of notification (36 in 2019 and 16
in the first half of 2020). The calendar year 2018 saw 39 such
prosecutions, while there were 24 in 2016-17.

“It is difficult to say whether or not a majority of cases are related to
non-notification of group creation, but this is a big problem,” lawyer
Sergey Chugunov told Forum 18 on 6 August. “The legislation contains no
specified point at which a group is considered created. This is a gap.
Therefore, anything is considered to be a religious group and fined.”

Most cases based on lack of notification arise either because individuals
(usually groups of acquaintances in someone’s home) hold collective
meetings for prayer outside formal places of worship, or because of
activities (often one-off actions) which an individual might reasonably
assume could not be interpreted as “missionary activity”.

Police and prosecutors initiated 47 prosecutions in 2019-20 under Article
5.26, Parts 4 and 5 solely or principally for worship. Sixteen of these
were for worship on residential premises. (Article 24.1, Paragraph 3 of the
Religion Law explicitly forbids “missionary activity” on residential
premises, with the exception of activities covered by Article 16 Paragraph
2, namely “Services, rites, and ceremonies”, which are explicitly
permitted.)

Individuals prosecuted included a Baptist Union pastor who held services on
the third floor of his own house and a Muslim charged for praying with
relatives and acquaintances “who had professed Islam since childhood”,
again in his own home. (END)

(The preceding was edited in length…to see the full report by Forum 18 go here)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10)

For more background see Forum 18’s survey of the general state of freedom
of religion and belief in Russia
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2246), as well as Forum 18’s
survey of the dramatic decline in this freedom related to Russia’s
Extremism Law (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2215).

A personal commentary by Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center
for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, about the systemic
problems of Russian anti-extremism legislation
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1468)

Forum 18’s compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1351)

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