On Religious Freedom, Is Russia the Next Saudi Arabia?

by Hannah Gais


As Donald Trump’s newly-minted administration struggles to adhere to a concise foreign policy, an independent commission has thrown yet another cog in its long-lost dream of a productive relationship with the “very smart” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a recently released annual report issued by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—an independent federal commission tasked with advising the State Department and other policymakers on matters of religious freedom—one country name stuck out like a sore thumb among the organization’s list of countries of particular concern (CPC): Russia.

Amidst Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential and rumors of Trump’s Russia ties, a general panic has set in the federal government to set up safeguards to keep Trump away from his campaign promise of a detente with the former superpower. In February, lawmakers skeptical of the president’s call for a diplomatic rapprochement in both the House and the Senate frantically set to work limiting Trump’s ability to lift Russian sanctions. Even a select few Trump appointees—namely U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and secretary of state Rex Tillerson—have used their platforms to advocate for a more stringent response to the country’s human rights abuses. Still, given the president’s fondness for the Russian government, legislative suggestions like those offered by USCIRF appear frantic—even preemptive.

Of course, that’s not to say the state of religious freedom in the country is acceptable. 2016 did witness an uptick in persecution of minority groups, and as the report notes, Russia “is the sole state to have . . . continually intensified its repression of religious freedom since USCIRF commenced monitoring it.” As far as USCIRF is concerned, there are several reasons why now—not 2015, not 2014, or even 2013—was the time to designated Russia a CPC. On the level of policy, 2016 brought forth what has become known as the Yarovaya Law—an amendment meant to strengthen the state’s infamous anti-extremism legislation. The bill, which was signed into law by President Putin in July, restricts “missionary activity” to registered (i.e., approved) religious groups, effectively bans house churches, and also makes it easier to deport foreign missionaries. Indeed, just weeks after the amendment was implemented, Jim Mulchany—a Metropolitan Community Church pastor based in Ukraine—became one of the first to be given the boot by federal security services, having been kicked out of the country in late July thanks to an alleged tip that he was there to conduct same-sex marriages.

Still, many of the developments cited by USCIRF are hardly new. The trial of atheist blogger, Ruslan Sokolovsky, who may face prison time for playing Pokemon Go in a Yekaterinburg Russian Orthodox church, was made possible under a controversial 2013 law. A byproduct of the state’s vendetta against Pussy Riot for its 2012 performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, what has now become known as Russia’s “blasphemy law” made “insulting religious feelings” a criminal offense. Meanwhile, Putin’s ongoing obsession with extremism, especially in the northern Caucasus, has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of Muslims for their interest in the work of Sunni theologian Said Nursi, or for their alleged affiliation with select extremist and anti-Russian rebel groups. Even the country’s ongoing war against Jehovah’s Witnesses, which reached its apex in April 2017 after a court declared the group was banned from operating in the country, has its roots in Soviet Russia.

More importantly, compared to some of its fellow CPCs, Russia seems out of place—at least for the time being.

Russia’s esteemed CPC colleagues are some of the worst long-standing violators of religious freedom. North Korea—where all religious groups have been banned, albeit with the exception of a handful of state-controlled places of worship—has been designated a CPC since USCIRF’s founding. Saudi Arabia, which has been a CPC since 2004, recently witnessed the highest level of beheadings it’s had in ages. There’s Burma, which the commission has repeatedly taken to task for its systematic ethnic cleansing of the country’s minority Muslim population. Violence, either state-led or sectarian, is a common theme among regions designated as CPCs. And while such brutality is clearly present in Putin’s Russia, state-sanctioned attacks on religious minorities is nowhere near as common. The Kremlin seems to prefer the idea of legislating minority faith groups out of existence.

Although the flurry of laws restricting religious freedom would seem to put Russia on a path to becoming a CPC, the long-term implications of these initiatives, which kicked off at the beginning of Putin’s third term in 2012, remain unclear. As Joel Griffith of the Slavic Gospel Association observed in July, the impact of policies like the Yarovaya Law “depends on . . . how it is going to be enforced, and that is a very huge question mark.” Though USCIRF chairman Thomas J. Reese’s criticism was more direct, he also remained somewhat vague about the policy’s eventual outcome. “These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will . . . make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people,” he said in a press release from July. Here, the danger lay in the ease of a possible crackdown.

Whether the Kremlin’s treatment of religious groups takes a permanent authoritarian turn in the years to come depends, in part, on what its exact motivation was in cracking down on non-Orthodox groups. Is the Kremlin aiming to purge apparent instruments of Western influence? Or is an effort to ensure Orthodox dominance? The former would explain the Kremlin’s fixation on Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it could have even more dire implications for practicing Protestants—and perhaps even Catholics—in the country.

In the end, USCIRF’s policy recommendations read more like a worried nudge aimed at the White House than an ultimatum directed at the Kremlin. The commission calls on the White House and Congress to “continue to identify Russian government officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom and human rights” under the Magnitsky Act; presses for the release of “prisoners of conscience”; and calls to ramp up funding for Voice of America and Radio Free/Radio Liberty in Ukraine and Russia. It also recommends “establish a binding agreement with the Russian government . . . on steps it can take to be removed from the CPC list.” Should these negotiations fail, sanctions would be deemed necessary.

Whether the commission gets its way is an open question. Tillerson’s brief tenure at State has featured more bluster than action, and his approach to human rights issues in the context of U.S.-Russia relations has been uneven, to say the least. For now, there’s only one viable option: wait and see.

Hannah Gais is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Commonweal, Al Jazeera America, First Things, U.S. News and World Report, and others. She studied Eastern Christianity at Hampshire College (Amherst, Mass.) and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, UK.