Introduction: Soul Wars: the Problem and Promise of Proselytism in Russia

43 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2011

See all articles by John Witte

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 1998


A new war has developed for the salvation of souls, as religious groups battle in Russia over the right and power to proselytize. This war is a legal war just as it is a religious war, as the Russian government has developed favorite denominations and oppressed others. After the Soviet Union crumbled, president Mikhail Gorbachev broke the Marxist/Lennist atheism of Russian and allowed religious freedom with legal backing. No state religion was implemented, and Russia entered a golden age of religious liberty along with a massive religious awakening, both within and without its borders. Foreign religious groups even began to make some headway in Orthodox Russia. These new arrivals eventually created resentment due to their Western concepts and their “hit and run evangelism.” The Russian Orthodox church requested these groups lower their level of activity, but they were ignored and forced to turn to state law. They proposed restrictions on foreign proselytism, which were only enacted on the local level.

However, the Russian government eventually passed the Freedom of Conscience Law, a controversial law that places religious groups with certain classes. The Orthodox Russian Church receives legal protection and benefits. Traditional foreign religions, like Protestant Christian and mainline Jewish and Muslim sects, are given full protection under the law, but fewer benefits. Other religious groups, those considered “dangerous” by the Orthodox Russian Church, are given only a pro forma guarantee of freedom of worship and liberty of conscience. Similarly, religious organizations are given a juridical personality and affirmative rights, while religious group are given only minimal protections and can be dissolved for a number of reasons that are vague and expansive.

This law is self-contradictory and violates basic human rights guarantees. Boris Yeltsin vetoed the law, religious groups have protested the law, and foreign leaders have admonished the law. Unfortunately, the Freedom of Conscience Law is not a temporary problem on one based on misunderstanding. The law instead reflects ontological differences between Russian Orthodoxy and Western theology. To the Russian Church, Western theology is under the “shadow of the Enlightenment” and grants too much freedom to its congregants while expressing too little faith. The main problems that exist are twofold: 1. Theological differences over the concept of proselytism, and 2. Cultural differences over concepts of church, state, and nation. A middle ground must be found between Russian Orthodox values and Western theological concepts so Russia can regain the religious liberty the Freedom of Conscience Law has oppressed.

Keywords: Proselytism, Russia, Law, Religion, Freedom of Conscience, Religious Liberty

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Introduction: Soul Wars: the Problem and Promise of Proselytism in Russia (1998). Emory International Law Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1998, Available at SSRN:

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