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RUSSIA: “Religious feelings” not offended – or the calm before the storm?

ICC Note:
It seems that Russia has adopted a “Blasphemy Law”, though it’s not being called that. It is now illegal to offend “religious feelings”—though exactly what constitutes “offending religious feelings” is poorly defined. Many who criticize this law are afraid that it will be used “by anyone to prosecute actions they simply dislike.”
By Geraldine Fagan
8/14/2013 Russia (Forum18)- Since a vaguely-worded Russian law criminalising “offence to religious feelings” came into force on 1 July no prosecutions have followed, Forum 18 News Service notes. Alexander Verkhovsky’s Sova Center for Information and Analysis has reported only one associated incident, concerning a representative of the Saami people in Russia’s Far North. Critics fear that the new amendments are so poorly defined that they could be used by anyone to prosecute actions they simply dislike. Verkhovsky, for example, thinks they will certainly be interpreted in a way that criminalises actions previously not treated as criminal. While understood as a concession to Russia’s nominal Orthodox majority, there is in fact considerable disagreement over the criminalisation of “offence to religious feelings” in both the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and Russian society, Forum 18 notes. And not every legal initiative apparently motivated by the notion of “offence to religious feelings” is progressing in Russia.
More than a month since a vaguely-worded law criminalising “offence to religious feelings” came into force in Russia on 1 July, no prosecutions have followed, Forum 18 News Service observes. Yet fears over the Law’s restrictive potential persist. It is the most notorious legal measure concerning freedom of religion or belief to be adopted since President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012.
Alexander Verkhovsky – who monitors nationalism, xenophobia and threats to freedom of religion or belief in Russia – is so far unaware of any formal requests to the law enforcement agencies for a criminal case to be opened due to “offence to religious feelings”. “Perhaps they exist, who could possibly know?” he commented to Forum 18 on 9 August. “Many are waiting, I think, and it’s summer.”

Signed into law by Putin on 29 June, the new amendments target actions “expressing obvious disrespect to society and committed with the aim of offending the religious feelings of believers” (Criminal Code, Article 148) and “deliberate public desecration”, damage or destruction of religious literature, items of religious veneration or ideological symbols (Code of Administrative Offences, Article 5, Part 26).
The measures were initially seen as a proposed “blasphemy law”, although they have never contained the Russian term “blasphemy” (koshchunstvo/bogokhulstvo). While newly controversial, “offending religious feelings” was in fact previously a minor, administrative offence. Forum 18 is unaware of anyone having ever been charged with it.
The maximum punishments under Article 148 of the Criminal Code are now a fine of 300,000 Roubles (about 56,000 Norwegian Kroner, 7,000 Euros, or 9,000 US Dollars) or imprisonment for one year. This rises to 500,000 Roubles (about 93,000 Norwegian Kroner, 12,000 Euros, or 15,000 US Dollars) or three years imprisonment if the offence is committed in a place of worship. The maximum punishments under Article 5, Part 26 of the Code of Administrative Offences are now a fine of 50,000 Roubles (about 9,300 Norwegian Kroner, 1,200 Euros, or 1,500 US Dollars) or 120 hours’ compulsory labour.

Critics fear that the new amendments on “offending religious feelings” are so poorly defined that they could be used by anyone to prosecute actions they simply dislike.

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