On Religious Freedom, is Russia the Next Saudi Arabia?

Russia “is the sole state to have . . . continually intensified its repression of religious freedom since USCIRF commenced monitoring it.”

Whether the Kremlin’s treatment of religious groups takes a permanent authoritarian turn in the years to come depends, in part, on what its exact motivation was in cracking down on non-Orthodox groups. Is the Kremlin aiming to purge apparent instruments of Western influence? Or is an effort to ensure Orthodox dominance?


As Donald Trump’s newly-minted administration struggles to adhere to a concise foreign policy, an independent commission has thrown yet another cog in its long-lost dream of a productive relationship with the “very smart” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a recently released annual report issued by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—an independent federal commission tasked with advising the State Department and other policymakers on matters of religious freedom—one country name stuck out like a sore thumb among the organization’s list of countries of particular concern (CPC): Russia.

Amidst Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential and rumors of Trump’s Russia ties, a general panic has set in the federal government to set up safeguards to keep Trump away from his campaign promise of a detente with the former superpower. In February, lawmakers skeptical of the president’s call for a diplomatic rapprochement in both the House and the Senate frantically set to work limiting Trump’s ability to lift Russian sanctions. Even a select few Trump appointees—namely U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and secretary of state Rex Tillerson—have used their platforms to advocate for a more stringent response to the country’s human rights abuses. Still, given the president’s fondness for the Russian government, legislative suggestions like those offered by USCIRF appear frantic—even preemptive.

Of course, that’s not to say the state of religious freedom in the country is acceptable. 2016 did witness an uptick in persecution of minority groups, and as the report notes, Russia “is the sole state to have . . . continually intensified its repression of religious freedom since USCIRF commenced monitoring it.” As far as USCIRF is concerned, there are several reasons why now—not 2015, not 2014, or even 2013—was the time to designated Russia a CPC. On the level of policy, 2016 brought forth what has become known as the Yarovaya Law—an amendment meant to strengthen the state’s infamous anti-extremism legislation. The bill, which was signed into law by President Putin in July, restricts “missionary activity” to registered (i.e., approved) religious groups, effectively bans house churches, and also makes it easier to deport foreign missionaries. Indeed, just weeks after the amendment was implemented, Jim Mulchany—a Metropolitan Community Church pastor based in Ukraine—became one of the first to be given the boot by federal security services, having been kicked out of the country in late July thanks to an alleged tip that he was there to conduct same-sex marriages.

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