DO MORE THAN TWO NOT GATHER TOGETHER?
Interview with lawyer and member of the Council of Human Rights of the Russian presidential administration, Vladimir Riakhovsky
Religiia i pravo, 6 December 2016
The federal law of 6 July 2016 No. 374—FZ (Yarovaya Law) was adopted in order to ensure public security. The amendments affecting believers and religious associations took effect on 20 July 2016. The law introduced changes into the law on freedom of conscience (Chapter III-1. Missionary activity. Article 24-1. Contents of missionary activity. Article 24-2. Procedure of conducting missionary activity); into the Code of Administrative Violations of Law (article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law); and into the Housing Code of the RF (part 3, article 17 and part 3-2, article 22). The sanctions provide for fines of citizens up to 50 thousand rubles and for organizations up to 1 million rubles.
The interpretation of this law and the practice of its enforcement have shown that it can have very broad effects and its provisions can be applied against anybody. The majority of believers and officials have viewed the possible consequences of the law more or less in the same way. First, each believer who talks about God outside of a house of worship in the name of a religious association must have in his possession a document from the organization. However in the course of webinars by the Slavic Legal Center, attorneys have often said that the constitutional right to personal confession of faith and dissemination of convictions has been preserved and personal profession is not “missionary activity” in the law’s sense, but only evangelism in the name of a religious association.
Second, religious groups that have given notification of their existence also must provide documents for their missionaries. But in reality the police and courts have begun requiring that any groups give notification of their existence. Whether this is so and what believers do who gather together for worship or conducting some ritual was explained for the portal Religiia i Pravo by an attorney and member of the Council on Human Rights in the presidential administration of the RF, Vladimir Riakhovsky.
–Roman Lunkin: During sociological field investigations in Russian regions, personnel of administrations who are responsible for relations with religious associations insist that groups of believers must be registered. Some bureaucrats even use various methods in order to force a religious group to give notification of its existence. Does it turn out that after the adoption of the Yarovaya Law it is simply impossible to gather together?
–Vladimir Riakhovsky: The logic of obligatory registration of religious groups is fundamentally flawed and not in accordance with the law. According to the constitution of the RF (art. 28) there is a right guaranteed to each person—freely to confess and disseminate his convictions. This constitutional right is made concrete by the law on freedom of conscience. Part 1 of article 3 prescribes in detail what the right to freedom of conscience means. Since at the present time a mass of interpretations of this right have arisen, this point of article 3 of the law on freedom of conscience should be quoted in full: “In the Russian federation, freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession are guaranteed, including the right to confess individually or jointly with others any religion or not to profess any, to conduct worship services and other religious rituals and ceremonies, to conduct the study of religion and religious education, to choose freely and to change, hold, and disseminate religious and other convictions and to act in accordance with them, including the creation of religious associations.”
Thus the law describes in detail all forms of religious activity, noting that this activity may be conducted not only within the framework of associations but including in the form of the creation of religious associations. According to Russian legislation, the creation of a religious association is a right but not an obligation of believers.
–R.L.: At the same time, the law on freedom of conscience says that associations exist in the form of groups and organizations. Nothing else is provided. Then what is a religious group?
–V.R.: The law on freedom of conscience (art. 7) actually describes a religious group as one of the forms of associations of believers that exist without the right of legal entity (juridical person). A religious group itself may give notification of its existence. In addition it is provided that a centralized organization also may present to the Russian Ministry of Justice information about religious groups, marking the start of their activity.
But I posit that all rules must be viewed in their entirety, that is, all provisions of the law on freedom of conscience along with the rules of the Russian constitution. And these rules say that there is no obligation to give notification of or to register groups of believers. The attempt to prescribe in the law informal formations of a religious type, obligating them to be registered, leads to absurd situations.
If I meet with my neighbor in order to discuss theological questions, then this is a group. My family also is a group. Two persons praying are a group. Must I give notification about a family prayer every time? This is absurd. Even in soviet times there was no such requirement, to give notification about any meeting on religious motifs.
R.L.: Within the context of what is now about 20 administrative cases, which were opened for illegal missionary activity, a substantial portion were because of evangelism of supposed religious groups. The point is that the police or the courts view that groups are preaching and attracting believers de facto, and their preaching is viewed as “missionary activity.” What is to be done?
V.R. Let’s begin at the very beginning. According to our legislation, a religious organization goes through registration. If a group of believers intends to operate on the rights of a religious group, that is, without registration and attainment of the status of a legal entity (juridical person), then it informs agencies of government about its existence. The process of monitoring missionary activity pertains to these associations (religious organizations and groups) whose authorization has been confirmed. Thus the definition of evangelism in the Yarovaya Law does not apply to profession and dissemination of faith by individual citizens, both personally as individuals and jointly. Such a position was also confirmed by the Legal Division of the Presidential Administration of the RF (the response to an inquiry of believers was received back in July 2016).
Again there must be a totality of all indicators so that the definition of missionary activity can be applied in the sense of the Yarovaya Law. From my point of view, it should be obvious that a religious group becomes such only after it has informed an agency of justice about its existence (by its own volition). After this a group may make a decision in a general meeting that it will issue to somebody a document for conducting missionary activity. Several believers in a house or apartment simply are not a “religious group,” and consequently they cannot and do not have the right by law to issue any document for evangelism.
A meeting of believing citizens who have not notified agencies of government that they are a religious group is not an actor in missionary activity. The Yarovaya Law cannot be applied to them in order to monitor missionary activity. Otherwise, even two persons would have to provide notification of their “religious activity.”
The law on freedom of conscience clearly indicated that for conducting missionary activity authorization must be given by organizations and groups (presuming that these are groups that have given notification and who have a general meeting and administrative bodies). Preaching by foreign citizens is regulated separately, who may be engaged in evangelism in the name of an organization that invited them.
R.L.: But despite widespread belief, Russian citizens and foreigners have full rights to preach as individuals?
V.R.: The law does not restrict the right of citizens to preach and evangelize, if this is not done in the name of a religious organization or group. There already is a whole series of judicial decisions justifying citizens who in a personal capacity spoke about their faith and distributed their literature. Evangelical believers were acquitted who distributed the New Testament on an electric train in the Yaroslavl station. Several courts in Kaliningrad acquitted believers: rulings were denied in four administrative cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses who had discussed their faith. The courts noted that the law “On freedom of conscience” does not contain a prohibition on disseminating personal religious experience and conversation on religious topics. The activity of believers who simply wanted to exercise their right to disseminate their religious views does not contain the totality of indicators of missionary activity, which is established by law, and thus it cannot be viewed as evangelism. The decisions in favor of believers in the Yaroslavl train station and by magistrate judges in Kaliningrad were made in November 2016.
However there were and will be incorrect interpretations of the Yarovaya Law, as in the case of Baptist Donald Osserwaad from Orel, who held a meeting for reading the Bible in his home. The Orel agencies of justice told the court that a religious group existed that was led by or participated in by Osserwaad. On this basis alone it is ended. This Baptist is not in violation of the law. Moreover, even on the invitations to his Bible group Donald wrote that he is simply a private Baptist preacher. But the court fined him 40,000 rubles.
Another egregious example is the case of Africans who came from Ghana, who were studying in Tver. The students were Pentecostal protestants who assembled for prayer and worship, for which they were fined. In the first place, the agencies of justice also presented to the court information that there was no religious group that had given notification of its existence. Second, as foreign citizens who were residing temporarily in Russia for study, the Africans did not even have the right to form a religious group. And that means that even if they had wished, they would not be able to issue a document authorizing evangelism for their leader.
During consultations on the Yarovaya Law I have frequently said that preaching and mission in the Christian understanding within the context of theology and the definition of missionary activity in the law are different things. It is this that must be proven to police officers and during judicial proceedings, taking a clear and firm position.
R.L.: The attempt to regulate missionary activity still leaves too many questions, and that leaves the possibility for abuse. This is a ban on evangelism in residences and on the whole the existence of house groups of believers in the most diverse churches. All believers—from protestants to Muslims—also are disturbed by the procedure for notification of the existence of a religious group. It is not quite clear what information to provide and what kind of list of group participants should be given to justice agencies.
V.R.: The law states that the notification indicates the participants of a religious group. And it is always possible to fault this, since perhaps five persons were indicated, but during a meeting inspectors may discover 10 or 15. But there is no provision for responsibility for this; that is, a religious group cannot be penalized.
Of course, the law notes that evangelism in residences is forbidden, except in the case of conducting rituals, ceremonies, and services. And it turns out that in the sense of the law a ritual in a residence, a prayer, may not be a missionary activity. As well as a meeting of a house group where the Bible may be read is also a form of rituals, ceremonies, or services.
It should be noted that if a house group is part of a religious organization, then believers of a registered church attend and assemble for joint worship in a home, then this is the activity of a religious organization. The leader of such a group must have a document from the organization that confirms his authorization for missionary activity. People who do not belong to a given confession and nonbelievers may be invited to meetings of such house groups. But I would not advise all members of the group or organization to issue a document for authorizing a missionary. Somebody may intentionally or unintentionally put an organization or group at risk, and for this a great fine is threatened. (tr. by PDS, posted 15 December 2016)