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RUSSIA: European Court repeats calls for Religion Law change

Following two religious freedom rulings against Russia by the European Court of Human Rights, the court has also ruled that Russia must change its Religion Law to conform to guarantees of religious freedom in both Russia’s constitution and international commitments. The ruling comes at a time when the Religion Law is being considered for amendment in the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament. The changes are reportedly unlikely to happen; if passed, however, they would require even unregistered religious groups to give the government extensive information about its origins, locations, leaders, etc., and making the group’s activities illegal if this information is not given. Not even the current Religion Law has such a requirement.

By Victoria Arnold

8/5/2014 Russia (Forum 18) – The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg has ruled… that Russia must bring the Religion Law into line with both the country’s international obligations and with the case-law of the Russian Supreme and Constitutional Courts.

These rulings come as changes to the Religion Law are being considered by the Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s Parliament, Forum 18 notes. The government brought the changes in the Law to the Duma in March, following another ECtHR ruling. There has been no progress on them in the Duma since mid-April.

The amendments focus on the registration procedure and the rights and responsibilities of religious organisations. The points made by the ECtHR in its June verdicts are not addressed. Also not addressed are June 2013 recommendations by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) the Religion Law should be changed: to permit less severe punishments for organisations found to have broken the Law than liquidation; and to allow for re-registration of “non-traditional religions.”

There has been no progress in the Duma on the amendments since mid-April, and they may not become law. “Sources in the Duma told us unofficially that the draft law won’t go through,” Zagrebina of the Moscow-based Guild of Experts on Religion and Law told Forum 18. “Besides this, judging by the delays it appears to have been buried. However, anything is possible here.”

The draft’s major change is that, unlike the current Religion Law, the proposed amendments would require a religious group that does not want to seek registration to provide detailed information to the authorities about “the date of its creation, its religious affiliation, the places at which it carries out worship and other rites and ceremonies, and the leaders and citizens who have formed the religious group, with their full names, patronymics, and places of residence.” No such notification or information is required under the current Law…

Zagrebina also noted that this provision making it illegal for religious groups to function without notifying the authorities of their existence would violate commitments to freedom of religion or belief in the Constitution. “If adopted, they would have to catch every such group and punish them for unapproved meetings,” she told Forum 18. “That would be too much.”

Her concerns are shared by Akhmetyeva of Moscow’s SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, who also told Forum 18 on 1 August that… the proposed changes would “violate the rights of unregistered religious groups. Their activities may be repressed because of a failure to fulfil the provisions of the law on giving notice of the establishment of a religious group and the commencement of its activities.”

Under the current Religion Law, despite its claim to uphold the Constitution’s guarantee of equality before the law for religious associations (obyedineniya), such associations are divided into organisations (organizatsii) and groups (gruppy). A religious group has significantly fewer legal rights than a religious organization.

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