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The Future of Religious Liberty in Russia: Report of the De Burght Conference on Pending Russian Legislation Restricting Religious Liberty

35 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2011  

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 1994


On January 28-30, 1994, a group of international human rights experts gathered at the De Burght Conference at Berkenrode, Heemstede, the Netherlands to assess the state of religious liberty in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR or,"Russia"). The Conference was convened by Dr. Yuri Rozenbaum of the Institute of State and Law in Moscow and Mr. Ernst van Eeghen of the Foundation "De Burght" for the Rights of Minorities in Heemstede.

The conference participants reviewed the remarkable development of the RSFSR Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion, passed by the Supreme Soviet of Russia on October 25, 1990 (the "1990 Law"). The group then analyzed in detail the sharp curtailment of the 1990 Law in various recent amendments, most notably the Introduction of Amendments and Supplements to the RSFSR Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion, passed by the Supreme Soviet on August 27,1993, but not signed by President Boris Yeltsin prior to the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet on September 21, 1993 (the "August 27 Amendment"). The August 27 Amendment remains a matter of serious concern, because President Yeltsin's dissolution decree provided that certain legislation (including this Amendment) would be held in abeyance and considered by the new parliament after the December elections.

It is the considered opinion of the De Burght Conference participants, as well as of the numerous other experts who have since reviewed a draft of this Report, that the August 27 Amendment constitutes both a significant reduction of the religious liberty rights guaranteed by the 1990 Law and a grave affront to fundamental and widely recognized principles of human rights laws that are vital to the healthy development of a democratic society. This is not the time in Russia's history to revert to oppressive patterns of the past. The most serious infraction of the August 27 Amendment concerns various restrictions and regulations of "foreign" and "non-traditional" religious organizations. Moreover, the law weakens guarantees that all believers and religious communities will be treated equally. It guarantees fundamental human rights protection only to citizens. It expands opportunities for inappropriate state regulation of religious affairs. It appears to single out the Russian Orthodox Church for special privileges and protections that go beyond legitimate recognition of its unique role in Russian history, culture, and society.

In general, the August 27 Amendment: (1) violates the letter and the spirit of Russian obligations under applicable international treaties and other internationally recognized norms of religious liberty and human rights; (2) conflicts with the norms of the Constitution of the Russian Federation approved on December 12,1993; and (3) contains many ambiguous, vague, and contradictory provisions and is legally flawed in many respects. While the August 27 Amendment does not totally dismantle the regime of religious freedom established by the 1990 Law, the changes reflect a clear effort to utilize the levers of state power to discriminate against noncitizens, to increase state control of religious organizations, and to restrict access of Russian citizens to religious orientations other than those already dominant in Russian society. They clearly disadvantage those who belong to religious communities with foreign ties. In the last analysis, they constitute an entering wedge that ultimately jeopardizes the religious liberty of all inhabitants of the Russian Federation, including that of the Russian Orthodox Church and its members. The August 27 Amendment cannot be squared with fundamental international and constitutional principles of equal treatment and religious freedom. Whatever genuine problems the legislation may be attempting to address, the actual provisions are inexcusably overbroad and intrusive in religious affairs and should be opposed by everyone committed to the highest principles of human rights and religious liberty.

This Report weighs the August 27 Amendment against the Russian Constitution and applicable international law, as more particularly described below. Part I of this Report recounts the recent history of religious liberty law in Russia. Part II rehearses the religious rights provisions of applicable international instruments and of the new Russian Constitution. Part III provides a topical and article-by-article commentary on the August 27 Amendment in light of these international and constitutional instruments.

Keywords: Russia, human rights, de Burght conference

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Future of Religious Liberty in Russia: Report of the De Burght Conference on Pending Russian Legislation Restricting Religious Liberty (1994). Emory International Law Review, Vol. 8, p. 1, 1994; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper . Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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