Wikimedia / Creative Commons license 3.0
St. Peter and Paul Lutheran Cathedral, Moscow (Wikimedia Commons)

Russia’s anti-extremism laws are being used to crack down on peaceful religious minorities such as Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas, the top US religious-freedom watchdog says.

A report commissioned by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that “vague and problematic definitions of ‘extremism’ in Russian law give the authorities wide latitude to interfere in peaceful religious observance and persecute believers”.

“Although many of these legal tools have existed for a decade,” the report says, “the Russian government has only recently begun to wield them in sustained campaigns designed to punish or exclude ‘non-traditional’ religions and religious movements, sometimes in concert with the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, which functions as a de facto state church”.

Until 2011, it says, anti-extremist measures were aimed at peaceful as well as fundamentalist Muslim groups: “Since a wave of anti-government protests in 2011, however, the Russian government has engaged in a wider ranging crackdown on non-Muslim denominations, including those whom the Russian Orthodox Church has traditionally disapproved of, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and [the] breakaway Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church.”

The commission’s report says a clear pattern has emerged in Russian legislation since 2012 “to keep introducing new measures aimed at suppressing religious dissent”.

The 2016 tightening of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations resulted in convictions for illegal missionary work which “had no connection with the threat of terrorism whatsoever; they were related to the Protestants and the Hare Krishnas”, the report adds.

It claims the dominance of the Orthodox Church has disadvantaged Christians of other denominations, and Russian citizens generally.

The case against members of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot, for their Punk Prayer appearance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2012, led to the adoption of a law against insulting the religious feelings of believers, which the report said had been “long on the agenda for the government-connected Orthodox milieu”. But defendants were often young people on social media liable to “test the limits of what is permissible”. The report criticised the law as “clumsy” and as prioritising religious sentiment over citizens’ constitutional rights.

The report warned that the law could deepen societal divisions rather than healing them: “[It] can lead only to deterioration of relations between the state and the society, between religious communities and non-religious or anticlerical parts of society, and feed the flames of developing ideological conflict between the authorities and youth.”

The 52-page report is titled Inventing Extremists: The Impact of Russian Anti-Extremism Policies on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Its cover displays the hammer, sickle and five-pointed star – symbols that evoke the Soviet era in which the atheist government vigorously suppressed practice of any religion.