The secretary-general of the Russian bishops’ conference said new legal regulations will give state officials extra powers to intervene in church life and revive communist-era restrictions.
Amendments to Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, passed on 24th March by the Duma, require foreign-trained clergy to obtain “recertification from a Russian religious organisation.” Clergy already working in Russia are exempt from the “recertification” requirement.
The amendments, awaiting final approval by Russian Federal Assembly’s upper house, also require churches to submit membership lists annually to the Justice Ministry and prevent “local religious organisations” from breaking away from larger churches.
“The new provisions all come from Soviet times and bring us closer to the Soviet system,” said Jesuit Fr Stephan Lipke.
“Certainly, these rules will ensure our clergy are prepared for conditions in Russia,” added the priest, who also directs Moscow’s St Thomas Institute. “But they will also require more work, as we prepare the necessary adjustments. At any stage, officials could say we’re not complying, giving the state additional means to introduce new repression.”
Father Lipke told Catholic News Service the new regulations would pose difficulties for religious orders like the Jesuits, whose only Russian novice awaits ordination after studying abroad. He said the Catholic seminary in St Petersburg was recognised by the government and might offer its own recertification course.
Explaining the bill on 23rd March, the Duma’s civil society commission chairman, Sergei Gavrilov, said foreign clergy coming to Russia would require “additional professional education” at a theology department approved by Russia’s Education Ministry, with sponsorship from a “centralised religious organisation.” He added that the measure would apply only to clergy beginning work for the first time and would not affect clergy paying single visits for services or lectures.
An explanatory document said the aim was to prevent foreign-trained clergy from “disseminating religious extremist ideology.”
Fr Lipke said the amendments did not rule out online courses, making it possible that some clergy could complete recertification studies before arriving, while the exemption of clergy already working in Russia had eased fears that Russia’s Catholic bishops might have to “undergo re-education.”
“However, whereas in other countries you can go to court to ensure religious freedom isn’t affected by such laws, this is difficult in Russia,” the bishops’ conference secretary-general added.
Picture: People light candles in front of a Catholic church during the Easter Vigil in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, in this file photo, dated 4th April 2015. (CNS photo/Ilya Naymushin, Reuters).