A. Verkhovsky. The Ministry of Justice has proposed restricting missionary outreach

1. The draft law will criminalize activities (by amending art. 239 of the Criminal Code) which can currently trigger liquidation of a religious association, but not criminal prosecution - namely activities that damage the morals of the religious association members, or lead to "coerced destruction of families."

In fact, the Russian Criminal Code already contains provisions on moral damage, but the drafters of the new law apparently seek to extend criminal liability to any "immoral" influences associated with religious faith or practices. While we do not in any way deny that such influences are possible - as far as moral values shared by most people are concerned - we strongly believe that legislators should think twice before applying rough measures such as criminal liability to delicate matters of faith.

Another proposed addition to the same criminal article is liability for "coerced disposition... of property for the benefit of the association" - which is understandably a criminal offence.

What is subject to doubt, however, is whether the legislators and law enforcement authorities can offer a generally acceptable definition of "coercion" in the context of religious life (with regard to both property and family). We are concerned that substantial donations of property or divorcing someone who belongs to a different religion may be seen as caused by "brainwashing" and result in criminal liability for the "victim's" faith community (the word "victim" is taken in quotes because very often they do not feel victimized in such circumstances).

It is clear that the amendment has been inspired by popular myths about "totalitarian sects," but technically speaking, any religious association may be affected.

2. The amendment removes (from par. 6 art. 3 of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations, hereinafter the Law) the factor of place from what is legally considered offensive to religious sentiments; the former provision

"Conducting public events, displaying texts and images offensive to religious sentiments in close proximity to objects of religious worship are forbidden"

is replaced by liability for, as well as a prohibition of,

"desecration of worshipped objects, signs and symbols of faith."

The new provision is copied from the Code of Administrative offences, art. 5.56. There used to be a discrepancy between the Law on Religion and the Administrative Code, because the latter never specified that only acts committed in proximity to objects of worship may be found offensive. The proposed amendment will remove this restriction from the Law on Religion as well, to ensure consistency in favor of tougher rules.

On the other hand, the draft abandons the former provision "citizens' sentiments associated with their attitude to religion" in favor of "religious sentiments" - thereby limiting legal protection of atheists and people who do not identify with a specific religion.

3. Religious organizations are required to provide additional reports (the new par. 5-1, art. 4 of the Law) and more importantly, obligated (par. 5-1, art. 4) to bar "from clergy service and from membership in governing bodies" anyone whose actions have been found by court to contain "signs of extremist activity." Such persons cannot become founders of religious associations either (addition to par. 1 of art. 9 of the Law).

Given the excessively broad definition of extremist activity, especially as recently amended this July (see our comments), religious associations face a difficult situation. To remind, the new definition of extremism is not limited to criminal offences, but may be applied to certain acts that are absent from either the Criminal Code or even the Administrative Code.

For example, if a court finds that a certain bishop has verbally justified some illegal conduct - such as forceful resistance to police trying to evict believers from a place of worship (a hypothetical situation in Russia, which is however well known to many Orthodox Christians in Ukraine) - this bishop must be somehow removed from the "governing bodies," and where a founder is likewise found "extremist," the organization will have to re-register.

4. The draft amendments contain detailed rules and regulations concerning missionary outreach (the new art. 17-1 of the Law). To begin with, missionary outreach is defined as any "popularization" of religious teaching or practice "outside the church courtyard," i.e. outside places specifically designated for this purpose.

This definition will apply, among other things, to religious processions, to media articles based on religious ideas, to distribution of religious literature, etc. In principle, this broad understanding of missionary outreach does not raise any objections and is probably shared by many religious believers.

Fortunately, the amendments do not seek to regulate all types of missionary outreach, but only some of them - such as direct solicitation (i.e. approaching someone in the street, door knocking), visiting institutions (such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, old age homes, and prisons), public events or public display of information. It also includes teaching religion to children in state-sponsored schools (religious instruction is restricted to optional, extra-curricular classes under the amended par. 4, art. 5 of the Law).

5. Those engaged in missionary outreach (hereinafter the terms "missionary" and "missionary outreach" will be used in a narrow sense described above) must hold certificates or power of attorney issued by their religious association, and they must be registered in this capacity with authorities. It means that missionary outreach will be subject to direct government control.

Notably, for most believers, including Christians and Moslems, these rules impose undue restrictions on their spiritual calling as it is understood by their religious teaching. It is impossible to issue missionary certificates to all believers.

If a missionary travels outside the region where s/he habitually lives, s/he must register with authorities in the new place - while anyone who is not a missionary does not need to register with the police if they spend less than 90 days in a new place.

A foreigner must hold a special type of visa to practice as a missionary in Russia.

Rules are particularly strict for missionaries on behalf of religious groups (i.e. associations without formal registration) - they must provide detailed data on their faith and teaching, and even on their membership.

It goes without saying that anyone found to be involved in "extremist activity" (in the unusually broad meaning of this term adopted by the Russian law) are banned from missionary outreach.

These draconian restrictions would have been understandable if they had been driven only by concern over potentially dangerous missionary outreach by the Wahhabi underground - but they will actually affect thousands and thousands of religious organizations in Russia, not to mention informal faith groups. The authors are convinced for some reason - and say so in the explanatory note - that the proposed amendments will put up additional barriers in the way of only those types of "missionary activity, which are incompatible with the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of others, and with other constitutional rights and liberties" but it looks like any missionary outreach will face additional barriers as a result.

6. Other restrictions imposed on the missionary outreach appear reasonable - such as a prohibition of outreach near a place of worship that belongs to another faith.

Some other rules, however, raise major concerns - for example, one saying that missionaries must not promise to help people out of "difficult life circumstances." But what about offering people help in getting rid of drug and alcohol addictions? It is common for both Christian and Moslem outreach to promise that believers would be able to overcome these "difficult life circumstances."

7. If a Russian organization invites a foreign missionary who then commits offences related to their missionary outreach, the host organization will be punished by not being able to invite any other religious practitioner before the offender has his/her conviction cleared (amendment to par. 2 of art. 20 of the Law).

8. Art. 5.57 will be added to the Code of Administrative Offences whereby any offence committed by a missionary will be punishable by a fine ranging between one and three minimum wages, and the relevant faith organization will have to pay a fine of 100 to 300 minimum wages. An official may be fined between 10 and 30 minimum wages for endorsing an infringement of applicable legal restrictions.

9. It is also proposed to amend art. 9 of the Law on Combating Extremist Activity by providing for a detailed registry of banned religious organizations (and other NGOs). (Notably, in 2002, a similar registry of "extremist materials" was proposed under the same law, but there has been no mention of such a registry ever since).

Along the same lines, it is proposed to amend art. 15 of the law against extremism by providing for a "federal registry of extremists' - i.e. individuals found by court to be engaging in extremist activity. A name can be struck out of the registry after their criminal conviction (or administrative punishment) is cleared.

These registries must be drawn within seven months, if the proposed legislation is adopted.

Such registers are not anti-constitutional per se and may be useful as protection against public threats. On the other hand, given the excessively broad definition of "extremism," these instruments are likely to be used for imposing even more restrictions on rights and liberties.