Liberty of Faith and Conscience

Freedom of Faith in Russia


[Esther Legal Informations Centre, Moscow]

Church and State relations in Russia are in the stage of development for the last 20 yeas. Since election of President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 Russia has chosen new model for Church and State relations and it is close cooperation. The leaders of the traditional religions of Russia have got a lot of privileges and even enjoy direct financial support by the government. Freedom of faith is granted to the followers of all of the religions but only Russian Orthodox believers can enjoy it up to maximum.

Keywords: Freedom of Faith, Church and State, Religious Minorities, Russian Orthodox Church

Freedom of faith is one of the realities of the contemporary Russia. The country is free from Christianophobia, widely spread in EU countries, and seems even interested in the deeper impact of religions historically practiced by its population on the life Russians and the society. Seeking for the best model of State and Church relations Post-Communist Russia tried various patterns and has come to the decision to leave individual religious practices without governmental control but to look after activities of the religious organization very carefully.

Russia has declared its independency from other republics within Soviet Union 12th of June 1990. One of the first laws adopted by the  Post-Communist government has become the Law „On Freedom of Faith”.

The law gave the right to all of the people on the territory of the country to adopt any religion, to have and change religious views, practice this religion and disseminate religious views.  Religious practices have been allowed to people without registration at any state body although when forming religious organizations with rights of legal entity, believers had to apply for the state registration. The procedure of the registration was very simple, quick and free of charge. Actually it was a kind of notification of the authorities on the fact that the religious organization has been created. All that believers needed for it was just a Constitution of the religious association and 10 individuals as founders. The founders could be citizens of any country or people without any nationality.  The law has declared complete equality of all of the religions and religious organizations before state laws, not one religion could enjoy any privileges or face limitations in comparison to others.1  

After the collapse of Communist ideology Russian people were seeking for the way to get a new base for a system of moral values, the reason to live and therefore were looking at religions as the source of values with great hope. Unfortunately, intense atheistic propaganda of the Communist times had targeted the Orthodox Church for years and the image of God was corrupted in the conscience of the majority of Russian people which made them more open for the messages presented by new religious movements then to the Russian Orthodox Church. It is necessary to add that the Orthodox church had no right to perform any missionary activity in Russia in Communist times, even preaching, not only Catechism, was forbidden for the church and financially the church was extremely poor. Naturally, the Russian Orthodox church was unable to compete with well equipped and experienced foreign missionaries on the field of mission.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1993 and Russia adopted a new Constitution. This Constitution proclaimed that „the Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be established as a state or obligatory one. Religious associations shall be separated from the State and shall be equal before the law”2.  In the same time, according to the Constitution, the State is not directly limited in its right to give preferences to a certain religion or in the development of cooperation with religious organizations on social, cultural or any other field.

The freedom of conscience has been granted to everyone in Russia but somehow the right to change religion has not been mentioned there and it has motivated Russian Orthodox Church to raise the issue of proselytizing of other religious groups on their cannon territory. However, Muslims started to protest against missionary activities of other religions on the territory with a Muslim majority. In both cases, local authorities were taking the demands of the main religions leaders seriously and it has become a problem for religious minorities to find a place for worship other then private houses. There was a very small number of buildings suitable for big gatherings of people in Russia in the 1990-s. Mainly there were „houses of Culture”, cinema centers and theaters belonging to the state.  After 1993 more and more regional authorities denied the right of religious organizations to rent state buildings designed for cultural programs, sport or educational purposes. To get permission from the authorities to use city or town land for construction of new facilities has been extremely difficult for religious minorities and it took years to get all of the necessary permissions for it.

Why did religious minorities lose the trust of the authorities in Russia? The reason is that the new religious movements are found locally or coming to Russia from abroad. The White Brotherhood led by Yuri Krivonogov with his wife proclaiming herself an Incarnation of St.Mary and Jesus in the same time was encouraging its followers to commit joint suicide in Kiev on the day of the „End of the Earth” 14th of November 1993. The action was stopped by the police who arrested over 600 followers of the organization that day. 

The leader of another new religious movement, known as Aum Shinrikyo, was working intensively on getting access to public schools and military units and equipment in Russia in the early 90s. The leader of the movement Shoko Asahara found information about the deadly nerve gas Sarin in the Russian Army and obtained access to resulting in Tokyo subway poisoning in March 1995. Over 5,000 people were poisoned and 12 people died.

All of that information raised awareness at the Russian government about activities of the religious organizations historically new for Russia and the decision was made to limit their rights by legal means. Therefore the government adopted a new law „On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Association” in 1997.

The Preamble of the law was declaring the following:

The Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation,
reaffirming the right of every person to the freedom of conscience and faith as well as the quality before the law regardless of the attitude towards religion and convictions,
proceeding from the fact that the Russian Federation is a secular state,
recognizing a special role of the Orthodox Church in the history of Russia, the formation and development of its spirituality and culture,
having respect for the Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions constituting an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia,
believing it important to promote mutual understanding, tolerance and respect in matters of the freedom of conscience and faith, therefore, adopts this Federal Law.3

The law has divided all religious associations in three groups: the recognized one: Russian Orthodoxy, respected ones: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism and others. Naturally only „respected” religions enjoyed various privileges up to the direct support from the country budget and access to the hospitals, orphanages, educational institutions, prisons and Armed Forces.

The law has created an extremely complicated system for the registration of religious organizations although it still was (and is) permitted for religious associations to act without registration. Non registered religious associations can have religious gatherings in private homes and practice their religion on individual level but they have no right to publish and/or disseminate their literature and get access to any hospitals, orphanages, prisons, educational institution and Armed Forces at all.

By being registered religious organizations become accountable to the governmental structures such as Ministry of Justice, Tax authorities, Statistic Committee and have to present them reports about their activities on a regular base being subject of the audit.

Only registered religious organizations have the right to invite foreign religious workers to Russia but such people can stay in Russia no longer than 90 days of every 180 days. Religious workers have no right to get work permits. It makes it impossible for foreign missionaries to work in Russia.

In order to be register, a religious association has to prove that it has been practicing their religion in a certain area for 15 years and did not have any conflict with the law. Another option for the registration is to prove that the religious association is affiliated to the union of religious organizations already registered.

According to the new law, all religious organizations can be register by meeting one of the following three standards: a local religious organization is founded by 10 Russian citizens, a centralized religious organization formed by at least by three local religious organizations of the same faith or a religious institution formed by centralized religious organization for internal needs (for example, theological seminary).

When the law came into legal effect the government forced all of the existing religious organizations with valid registration to re-register. Some of them have found that it will be impossible. For example, many religious organization were unable to present solid evidence that they were operating in Russia for 15 years already (since the Communist time), some organizations could not find 10 brave people ready to submit all of their passport details, addresses and contact phone numbers as it has been required by the government. Many believers were remembering persecutions of the Communist times and were afraid that they could be easily arrested or face other negative consequences if the complete information about them as the founders of religious organization will be saved somewhere in the files of the authorities.

The religious organizations planted in Russia by foreign groups have lost their right to legally exist. One of these religious organizations, namely the Jesuit Order were one of the victims of this new law. Jesuits had a lot of property in Russia at that time and could lose it all if they would lose their registration as a legal entity. So, they had to appeal to the Constitutional court to seek for justice.

The Constitutional court, on its session 13th of April 2000, decided in their favor. The Court  has motivated its decision by one of the basic principles of Russian laws namely that no new law can have a retrospective effect and if a religious organization has the right of legal entity already it cannot be closed down just on the base that it doesn’t fit the pattern of a religious organization under new law.

As result of the decision of the Constitutional court and the following Comments to the law issued by the Ministry of Justice; many religious organizations registered before the new  law came into legal effect (up to 75% of them) and many were able to pass the re-registration procedure successfully.

The Law „On the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations” has opened a new chapter in State and Church relations in Russia.

The Orthodox Church obtained preferences and has realized its responsibility for the social, cultural and spiritual welfare of the Russian people. The church issued the Basic of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. The document is promoting active involvement of Orthodox laypeople into social, economic, cultural and political life. Later in 2008 The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights has been adopted. Since that moment the government of Russia has started to look at Russian Orthodox Church as the real partner in the fields of moral education and softening of social conflicts.

Practically all of the „respected” religions of Russia are welcomed to enter in relations of social partnership with the state and can get even support for it. Government sponsors building of new churches and mosques. Such subjects as „Basic of Russian Orthodox Culture” or „Basics of Muslim Culture” in the areas where majority of Muslims lives will become obligatory for the all public schools in Russia starting from 2012 but non-religious parents can choose the subject „Basics of Secular Ethics” for their children as the substitute. There are also courses on Basics of Buddhist Culture, Basics of Jewish culture, a course on World Religions and the text books on that subject are available in every school library.

Starting from February 2010, the Russian Army has got military priests who have taken position known in Communist times as deputy-commander on political matters. The duty of the political officers in Soviet Army was to lift up the spirit of soldiers, help them to fight stress and to teach them Communist doctrines. Military priests are providing spiritual help and catechism to the soldiers helping them to develop a healthy Christian system of values. In case when more then 10% of the soldiers in the squad are Muslims they can get a Mullah on the position of the military priest. Military priests receive their salary from the governmental budget.

Religious organizations in Russia receive donations tax free. More than this, Russian taxpayers receive tax deduction on the amount of money donated to any religious organization registered legally including religious minorities.

All of the registered religious organizations have the right to start new media and to use TV channels. Practically only major religions can afford it and run cable channels accessible to all Russian people.

New Patriarch of Moscow Patriarchate of Russian Orthodox Church Kirill  enthroned in February 2009 has encouraged all of the laypeople to become missionary to the people around, he has prescribed to every parish to become a center for social work and welcomed new forms of missionary work with the younger generations. It has brought immediate results.

According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) the number of Orthodox Christians has grown from 72% to 75% of the population since 2009. 16% of Russian population was consisting of atheists and agnostics in year 2006 but in 2010 there were only 8% of non-believers in Russia.4

Freedom of faith in Russia is bringing its fruits.


The Law of the Russian Socialist Federal Republic „On Freedom of Faith” dated 25 October 1990.
Constitution of the Russian Federation, 1993.
Federal Law # 125-FZ of September 26, 1997 „On the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations”.




1 Art.10 of the Law of the Russian Socialist Federal Rsbublic „On Freedom of Faith” dated 25 October 1990.
2 Art. 14, Constitution of the Russian Federation, 1993.
3 Federal Law # 125-FZ of September 26, 1997 „On the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations”.
4 „Do we believe in God?”, VCIOM, Press release # 1461, 30 March 2010,


EKATERINA SMYSLOVA (Moscow, Russia) is president of „The Esther Legal Information Center” in Moscow. She Graduated in 1981 at the Sverdlovsk Institute of Law (Ural State Academy of Law) and Completed a course on Religion and Human Rights in Columbia University, NYC, USA in 1997-1998. She worked as a Legal Adviser for state company ‘Gortopsbit’, Sverdlovsk, Russia from 1981-1985 and had afterwards a private practice. In 1996 she worked for a year as Director of Legal Department in the Institute for Religion and Law (Moscow). From 2005-2011 she was Regional Representative of the Haggai Institute in Eurasia. Besides her job she volunteered in the past as Legal Director of „The Navigators” in Russia (1994-2007), Member of the BWA commission On Freedom and Justice (1999-2004) and Member of the Board of Russian Evangelical Alliance (2003-2010). Nowadays she volunteers as Member of the Board of Russian-American Christian University (since 1999), Member of the International Board of Dorcas Aid International (The Netherlands, since 2009) and Member of Secretariat of the Eastern European Association of Christian Democrats (Since 2011).




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