As the December 31 deadline passed for reregistration of religious associations, more than 9,000 religious organizations were registered. But that total, based on preliminary statistics of the Russian Ministry of Justice, represents about 60 percent of the number of groups that claimed religious status during the 1990s.

Viktor Korolev, head of the religious associations section of the Ministry of Justice, said that most of those still unregistered either disbanded or failed to present sufficient information to gain reregistration, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass. Some organizations opted to accept the lesser status of a religious group, a status that deprives the organization of the right to hold services in public places, own property, distribute literature, and invite foreign guests.

Many religious groups and human-rights advocates worldwide had strong objections to any reregistration requirements, saying that reregistration has a chilling effect on religious freedom. But the Russian Orthodox Church supported the reregistration law.

After Russia enacted reregistration, religious groups scrambled to comply, often facing much discrimination from local authorities hostile to minority religious groups. Some local religious associations that did not gain reregistration nevertheless belong to national groups that are registered. These local associations may still attempt to gain their own reregistration.

Local opposition

According to the Institute of Religion and Law, Moscow, some Protestant, Muslim, and Orthodox groups failed to meet the reregistration deadline because of resistance by local government officials and months of delays as these religious groups fought court battles. Although reregistration is with the national government, local officials and others had the right to file objections to any group's reregistration.

In late December, Keston News Service conducted a reregistration survey of several regional offices of the Ministry of Justice. Results varied from region to region, although it appeared that few religious associations—which included Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Protestant groups—seriously seeking reregistration were refused. Some willingly accepted status as a religious group instead of reregistering, according to the Keston report.

Aside from the reregistration controversy, religious diversity continues to expand in Russia. Official statistics show about 60 religious confessions currently working in Russia. After the fall of the nation's communist government ten years ago, there were 40.

But problems still occur. Russia's human rights ombudsman, Oleg Mirnov, says his office receives more than 2,000 complaints a month about alleged violations of individual human rights, including freedom of religion. Mirnov urged heads of religious organizations to form an advocacy office for religious rights and freedoms. He also urged the state to guarantee the equality of all religions before the law.

On the whole, many see improvements in religious freedom. Peter Konavalchik, president of the Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptist, said that Russia has never before in its history enjoyed "such a favorable period for the existence of religious organs," according to Blagovest news service. He said that despite shortcomings in the law, Protestants have an opportunity to spread their views openly and participate in society.

Related Elsewhere

Stetson University's history department has a fantastic Russia Religion News site that not only compiles, but translates news articles related to religion in Russia.

Earlier Christianity Today articles on Russia's reregistration deadline and other religious freedom issues include:

Pastor Charged with Speaking for Unregistered Organization | Case dismissed on technicality for pastor from Minsk, but courts are still deciding the fate of the Association for Religious Freedom in Belarus. (Jan 22, 2001)
Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan. 11, 2001)
Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty? | Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000)
A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000)
Russia's minority churches welcome liberal ruling on religion law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999)
Jehovah's Witness Verdict Stalled (April 26, 1999)
Stepping Back from Freedom | The new law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)
New Religion Law Fraught with Potential for Abuses (Nov. 17, 1997)

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