Ludmila Alekseeva: ‘So long as there is even one instance of religious persecution, people have to be defended’

posted 14 Feb 2014, 01:43 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Feb 2014, 01:48 ]
11 February 2014

Vera Vasilieva

On 10 February 2014 Moscow Helsinki Group presented its report on ‘Freedom of Conscience and the Secularity of the State’ in 2013. Speakers at the presentation were Sergei Buryanov, leading researcher and co-chair of the board of the Institute of Freedom of Conscience, and Ludmila Alekseeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

The human rights defenders said that in the past year the attack on freedom of conscience and the secularity of the State continued, and resulted in a large number of violations of human rights, increasing intolerance and more discrimination.

Sergei Buryanov said that this could be seen, in particular, in recent legislative initiatives. Today for ‘insulting the feelings of believers’ someone can be given three years in prison. At the same time, current Russian law gives no definition either of what constitutes ‘feeling’ nor what constitutes a ‘believer’.

As a result, groups of so-called ‘Orthodox activists’ with impunity carry out pogroms at artistic exhibitions, in the theatres and at other cultural events that seem to them to be ‘insulting’. Law enforcement agencies take no action to stop this happening.

One other complaint that human rights defenders have about contemporary Russian legislation concerns the notion of ‘sect’ that it contains is, essentially, a negative social label which they can ‘hang’ on any religious organization following a religion that differs from the ‘official’.

The persecution continues of Muslims, Scientologists, followers of Krishna and other believers. This is made easier for the authorities by the list of so-called ‘extremist’ organizations, far from all of which can rightly be classed as such.

At the same time, according to the report’s authors, in 2013 the situation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses improved somewhat thanks to their active defence of their interests in the courts, including the appeal courts. However, it is not clear if this tendency will continue.

The Moscow Helsinki Group also points out that a merger of the Church and State is taking place. This is to be seen, for example, in the introduction of subjects based on religious confessions in schools and the institution of military chaplains in the army.

Sergei Buryanov also criticised the practice of giving State property to religious groups, and this includes the transfer of cultural objects on the basis of the new law ‘On Transferring to Religious Organizations Property that has a Religious Purpose and is State or Municipal Property’.

In order to remove the negative consequences of the new laws, there must be a serious reform of legislation, Mikhail Buryanov believes.

For her part, Ludmila Alekseeva identified the roots of today’s problems in the law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations’ adopted in 1997 that divided religions into ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’. She expressed the conviction that this law must be annulled, and until this is done, Russian cannot be called a state based on the rule of law.

‘Preference is clearly given to one Church,’ although, ‘according to the Constitution religion is separated from the State,’ Ludmila Alekseeva said.

Ludmila Alekseeva said that she deeply regretted that ‘among human rights defenders the notion of freedom of conscience’, in her opinion, is not sufficiently ‘popular’, and there is no understanding ‘of the need for serious, continuing protectxion of every religion in our country.’

‘For the person of faith, freedom of conscience is the same as freedom of convictions is for those who have no faith…So long as there is even one instance of religious persecution, people have to be defended,’ Ludmila Alekseeva said.

After the main speakers, the representatives of religious organizations present at the press conference gave their views, and gave examples of the persecution of Muslims, Scientologists and the adherents of Falun Gong.