Tension Rises Over New Faiths

MOSCOW, Aug. 30 (IPS) -- Religious affiliations are being kept out of the next census in Russia in the face of growing tension between the traditional church and newer denominations.

The State should not dictate "how to behave, whom to elect and how to unite," Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday. The government should seek only to help religious communities and to create better conditions for them, President Putin told the official RIA news agency.

The new census is due in October.

There are about 21,000 traditional religious groups registered in Russia, including 11,000 Orthodox groups, 4,700 Protestant and 3,000 Muslim groups. Most others are smaller denominations.

Recent studies show that a little more than half of Russia's 146 million people consider themselves Russian Orthodox, though few attend church services regularly.

The new religions have attracted fewer than 300,000 members but they have become controversial. The Russian Orthodox Church has been critical of these new groups and has even aimed criticism at mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The Russian Orthodox Church protests against what it sees as "foreign evangelisation". Orthodox clergymen have accused the Catholic Church of aggressively recruiting believers from their faith. The Orthodox leaders have objected strongly to the Pope's visits to former Soviet states and rejected a proposed visit to Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church said in a recent report that Catholic clergy were giving religious instruction to "financially dependent" children in orphanages and shelters. It accused the Vatican of treating the Orthodox Church like a rival company in a marketplace. Catholic leaders called the accusations groundless.

The Russian Orthodox Church, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism were recognized by a law passed in 1997 as "traditional religions". Non-traditional religious groups unable to prove their existence in the country for more than 15 years were to be registered with the government or disbanded. About 9,000 of these new religious groups registered, but about 8,000 have not. Some say they are finding it difficult to register because local government officials are making the process difficult and time consuming.

Many members of "non-traditional" denominations still face religious discrimination, and remain understandably reluctant to reveal their beliefs, Anatoly Pchelintsev, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Religious and Legal Affairs told IPS.

The "traditional religions" enjoy more government support. Cabinet minister Vladimir Zorin announced in May that the government had initiated amendments to grant more tax benefits to traditional religious communities. The proposed amendments have not yet become law.

Earlier this year Russian authorities barred Jerzy Mazur, a Catholic bishop of Polish nationality in eastern Siberia, and Stefano Caprio, an Italian Catholic theology teacher from entering Russia. No explanations were g iven, despite Pope John Paul II's request to Putin.

Russian clergymen see foreign evangelisation as a part of expansionist policies by overseas denominations. But Sergei Ryakhovsky who heads the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, says the government is trying to help the Russian Orthodox Church in order to limit competition to it.

The visas of several foreigners who are not of the Orthodox faith have been revoked in recent months. In a recent case in June, authorities cancelled the visa of Alexei Ledyayev, founder of the New Generation Church based in Riga in Latvia. Others have had their visa requests denied.

But many of these differences boil down to differences of opinion. Boris Falikov, professor of religious studies at the Moscow University of Humanities says it is difficult to draw the line between "aggressive evangelizing" and legitimate missionary activity.