Skip to comments.Activists Fear Repercussions of 'Blasphemy Bill' [Russia criminalizes offending the religious]
Posted on 06/13/2013 2:04:56 PM PDT by Alex Murphy
The bill protecting "believers' feelings," which rights activists and analysts have called a "step back" for Russia, a legal "Pandora's Box" and a return to the Dark Ages, looks set to take effect in July after sailing through the State Duma with a unanimous vote on Wednesday.
The so-called "blasphemy law," which stipulates criminal prosecution for any abuse of religious feelings, has already provoked a chorus of criticism, with many warning that it will be applied selectively, increase religious intolerance and violate the Constitution's recognition of Russia as a secular state.
In a preview of how the law may be applied if it gets final approval from the Federation Council and President Vladimir Putin, a Muslim organization on May 27 called for "legal liability" to be imposed on a children's book publisher whose illustration it said offended Muslims. The illustration in question was a picture of a crocodile holding what Islam.ru said resembled a torn-out page from the Koran.
The new legislation came about after Orthodox believers cried foul over the female punk band Pussy Riot's controversial performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral last year, a performance which saw three young women repeatedly denounced during trial for "offending religious believers" and sentenced to two-years behind bars for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
Conservative-leaning segments of Russian society have said the new law, initiated last September by deputies of the State Duma's four factions, would serve to protect the Russian Orthodox Church whose image observers say has worsened significantly in the last several years from actions similar to those of Pussy Riot.
But human rights activists say the legislation is one of many repressive bills drafted by the State Duma last year amid a burst of opposition activity. They say the legislation is aimed at blunting criticism of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, a crucial part of the president's patriotism program to rally Russians together.
Experts fear that other religious groups will be excluded from the law's application and that dividing the rights of believers from those of individuals will spark violence and increase repression of minority groups.
"This bill could open a judicial Pandora's Box of potential abuse and arbitrary rulings, and cases could be brought against members of religious minorities, atheists, and agnostics, as well as against activists in social and political movements or members of alternative ways of life alleged to have offended Moscow Patriarchate structures," said Catherine Cosman, a senior policy analyst with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body within the U.S. government that monitors violations of religious freedom abroad.
One of the bill's authors, Liberal Democratic Party member and head of the Duma's Social and Religious Organizations Committee Yaroslav Nilov, called 2012 "a year of vivid blasphemous challenges to society," making the bill a high priority for Russian society.
Cosman, however, said blasphemy should not be controlled by law at all.
"Laws are meant to protect individuals, not beliefs," she said. "The Russian Constitution recognizes the separation of religion from the state and the right to believe or not to believe in religion. I do not see how this law is compatible with such Russian constitutional principles."
Although the bill was ready for consideration last fall, the Duma was told to improve its ambiguous wording and delete from it those norms that were already regulated by other laws.
After six months of wrangling, the Duma's Social and Religious Organizations Committee, the Kremlin human rights council and the Public Chamber prepared a number of amendments to the original bill, though observers said the main drawbacks remained.
The new draft of the bill lowers the maximum prison sentence for "offending the feelings of religious believers" to three years, while the maximum fine stays at 500,000 rubles ($16,000).
In addition, prosecutors have to prove that the offenders' actions were premeditated. The bill would also punish "desecration of religious literature, marks, labels and symbols."
Olga Sibiryova, a religious issues expert at the Sova think tank, said that even though the new bill was better than the previous one, it still contained articles similar to those the current legislation has.
"There is already a law that guarantees human dignity it can be applied to religious feelings as well," she said. "The [new] bill also stipulates punishment for vandalism in sacred places, while there is already a law punishing acts of vandalism committed anywhere."
Representatives of several religious organizations interviewed by The Moscow Times said that there was no need for a new law and that the current laws were enough to ensure the rights of religious people.
"The needs of believers don't differ from the needs of any other people," said Dmitry Blagochinkov, pastor of the Moscow Bible Church. "So, if someone breaks a crucifix it is vandalism; if someone offends a pastor, it is hooliganism."
Sibiryova agreed. "Putting religious feelings in a separate category is unreasonable. What makes religious feelings more important than any other feelings? This very question makes the situation in society potentially conflictive," she said.
Abdelmalek Hazrat, from the Muslim organization Mercy, agreed that all Russian citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, should be guaranteed their rights.
Complicating things further, observers and members of religious organizations say the term "feelings" is far too vague, and that law enforcement authorities and judges would interpret the term differently in different situations and possibly use the bill to protect powerful interests.
For instance, Sibiryova said, the bill is likely to allow any criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church to be considered blasphemy.
Alexei Voskresensky, secretary of the church council at Word of Life, an evangelical Christian church, said the term "religious feelings" was unclear and open to different interpretations. "It is very difficult to define a provision of law for a thing that doesn't physically exist," he said.
Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for the Jewish Community Center, said he was more concerned not with the bill itself but with how it would be implemented. According to him, religious organizations should not use the law at all to avoid increasing antagonism toward religion in society.
"There isn't even a high-quality expert assessment to give a precise definition of xenophobia. So how can we define what feelings are?" Gorin said.
Cosman, of the USCIRF, said the only way to avoid the pitfalls of such vague terminology was to limit prosecution of abuse of "believers' feelings" to threats of imminent violence or actual violence against a specific individual.
Warnings of Intolerance
While Russia would not be the first country to have a blasphemy law if it is approved, many countries are freezing such laws or deleting them from the books altogether.
Denmark has a law under which a person could face time in prison for insulting or ridiculing any religion, but it has not been used since 1938. Similarly, the U.K. scrapped a blasphemy law in 2008 at the initiative of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party. Sweden discarded its blasphemy law in 1949 and later replaced it with a religious freedom law.
According to Cosman, blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, since they protect beliefs over individuals and thereby empower governments and majorities to enforce particular religious views against individuals and minorities.
"There is catastrophe waiting to happen in this bill. Its implementation will be like a witch hunt in the Middle Ages, and every punishment will be seen as a convergence of the church and the state and an attempt to strangle freedom of belief," Gorin said, adding that relations between different religions in Russia's multi-ethnic society could also be damaged.
Although the legislation says that offending the feelings of any religious group will be punished, Sibiryova said it was unlikely that the law would be used to defend the rights of small groups like Jehovah's Witnesses.
Some experts cite Russia's laws against extremism as an example of how the blasphemy bill could be selectively applied to only certain groups.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 issued by the U.S. State Department in May, the Russian government "targeted members of minority religious groups through the use of extremism charges to ban religious materials and restrict groups' right to assemble."
In one such example, a Novosibirsk court convicted two imams for spreading religious literature that the court deemed extremist. The Memorial human rights group said the prosecution was illegal.
The government said on May 28 that its legislation commission had approved for consideration by the Duma a bill that would stipulate larger fines and longer prison terms for "destructive activity by religious organizations."
Observers warned that the consequences of both these bills could be dangerous for society.
"The blasphemy bill, whose supporters often justify it by saying it is necessary to promote religious harmony, in fact is likely to have the opposite effect, exacerbating religious intolerance, discrimination and violence," Cosman said.
....The new legislation came about after Orthodox believers cried foul over the female punk band Pussy Riot's controversial performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral last year, a performance which saw three young women repeatedly denounced during trial for "offending religious believers" and sentenced to two-years behind bars for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Conservative-leaning segments of Russian society have said the new law, initiated last September by deputies of the State Duma's four factions, would serve to protect the Russian Orthodox Church whose image observers say has worsened significantly in the last several years from actions similar to those of Pussy Riot....
....The new draft of the bill lowers the maximum prison sentence for "offending the feelings of religious believers" to three years, while the maximum fine stays at 500,000 rubles ($16,000). In addition, prosecutors have to prove that the offenders' actions were premeditated. The bill would also punish "desecration of religious literature, marks, labels and symbols."
Registration of religious groups is not required, but under existing law, only registered religious groups have the explicit right to conduct public worship services and other activities, although no specific religions or practices are banned or discouraged by the authorities in practice. Those that register receive government benefits, including subsidies for clergymen, office expenses, the right to visit and proselytize in prisons and hospitals, and access to public television broadcasting. Government funding also is provided to religious schools and to teachers who lecture on religion in state schools. The Government occasionally subsidizes one-time projects and significant religious activities, and registered religious groups are partly exempt from paying taxes and import custom fees. A religion may elect not to accept the subsidies....Nonregistered religious groups may not build public places of worship or conduct legally valid religious ceremonies such as weddings....Thus, I would have concerns that the Russian govt will only prosecute religious persecution against religious bodies that it officially recognizes.
-- from a U.S. Dept of State briefing on religious freedom in the Slovak Republic
Putin was part of a faction within the KGB which believed that pushing atheism on the populace rather than Russian Orthodoxy was a mistake.
No idea if he actually believes anything (other than more power for himself) but that is likely the direction enforcement will go.
Their focus is on the Russian Orthodox. Putin has a genocidal “mentor,” Alexandr Dugin if memory serves, who says stuff similar to that Norwegian shooter in regards to creating a culture dedicated to the rituals and traditions of the ROC. He also advocates wars of civilization against the West, renaming France to Gaul, things like that.
This isn’t a victory for Christianity. It’s a victory for a corrupt state religion which historically has been populated by KGB-Priests and KGB-Patriarchs.
Islam will worm its way into this. All it takes is flicking one domino to start the process and they know it...
It’s intended to protect the normal people from pussy rioters, but it can be used by the bearded savages whenever someone says “towelhead.”
American conservatives recognize this at some level. But at another, in order to be "true Americans," they have to split themselves in two, one half devoted to G-d and the other to Thomas Jefferson.
This is the foundational flaw of our country.
And still is. The current patriarch, Kirill, was a KGB agent from the old days. He made billons on the import of alcohol and tobacco. He is a fraud through and through.
>> they have to split themselves in two
Not unless the foundation from which the tenets of liberty originate is none other than through the truth of Christianity, with the grandfather of Judaism of course.
There is no flaw. It is what it is. And it precedes the birth of the US by thousands of years.
There is no flaw. It is what it is. And it precedes the birth of the US by thousands of years.
There is no "religious liberty" in classical Judaism (read the Book of Joshua). Jews who exercise their "freedom of religion" to worship a false "gxd" are subject to the death penalty. Judaism is not really a "religious denomination" but a Theocratic Nation.
And while I'm unaware of any writings on the subject from the church fathers, the fact is from the moment chrstianity came into power it forbade other religions. Read the works of the nineteenth century Popes to see what they had to say about the subject.
"Religious liberty" comes from the "enlightenment," which was an enemy of G-d. Even early Protestantism rejected "freedom of religion."
The only true religious freedom is the freedom to obey G-d. No one has the "right" to disobey Him. The free will and ability to do so, yes . . . but not the "right."