Russian Christians Claim Discrimination

Moscow, Russia - Taking their concerns to the streets, a small group of Christians in Russia protested at the weekend against policies they say violate their religious freedom.

Some 200 members of an evangelical church staged a demonstration in downtown Moscow, protesting about difficulties their church was experiencing in getting the authorities to approve the allocation of land for places of worship.

"Our task is to teach people how to defend their rights," church leader Alexander Purshaga told the gathering.

The protest was the latest sign that all is not well when it comes to freedom to worship in Russia, where some Protestant groups are lumped together with sects and all regarded as troublesome.

Last month, police raided a Pentecostal Church seminar in Izhevsk, a city northeast of Moscow, briefly detaining dozens of believers.

In the Chekhov district south of Moscow, local Baptists are struggling to hold onto their new church, built to replace their previous one, which was destroyed in an arson attack last September. Similar attacks have occurred elsewhere.

In February 2005, two U.S. lawmakers who chair the Washington-based Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote to the Chekhov district administration expressing concern about threats of violence against the congregation and alleged official efforts to bulldoze the newly rebuilt place of worship.

In its annual report released earlier this month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom argued that conditions in Russia "have deteriorated in recent years."

Growing government authoritarianism was a problem, as was the favored treatment enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox Church, it said.

Some religious groups were prevented from registering - a legal requirement - and from being able to practice freely. Anti-Semitism was another troubling issue, the group said.

Some Russian officials have criticized what they call "totalitarian sects" and accuse the U.S. of using such groups to undermine the state.

Among the organizations lumped together and described as "imported sects" are such diverse groups as the Salvation Army, Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Sun Myun Moon's Unification movement.

Reflecting the official view, a Moscow school textbook - endorsed by city Mayor Yuri Luzhkov - counts the Salvation Army among "pseudo-religious organizations seeking all possible methods of using the Russian education system to spread their so-called religious teachings."

The book also accuses the Salvation Army, which is in fact a mainstream Protestant organization, as "posing as an evangelical Protestant Church."

Recently, two high-ranking British and Danish Salvation Army representatives were denied permission to enter Russia "in the interests of state security."

Officially, the Russian constitution has put an end to Soviet-era religious persecution. The fall of communism in 1991 brought not only a revival in the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the growth of other Christian denominations as well as sects.

Many Russians became fearful of the arrival of some of these groups, and to address public concerns, the controversial law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association" was approved in 1997.

The legislation was backed by the Orthodox Church, but other religious groups, the Vatican, human rights advocates and Western governments described it as discriminatory.

The law, which ostensibly targets cults, requires religious groups to prove that they had been operating in Russia for at least 15 years - a requirement that effectively undercut most groups but favored the Orthodox Church.

The law also describes the Russian Orthodox Church as the country's dominant religion and mentions Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as other "traditional" faiths. Other denominations are relegated to a secondary status, subjecting them to tough registration requirements.

Groups failing to meet the 15-year requirement are unable to distribute literature or invite foreigners to preach. They are also barred from establishing educational centers or media outlets, and their clergy are not exempt from military service.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II has praised the law, calling it a barrier against foreign "pseudo-missionaries" whom he said had inundated Russia.