Russia Might Tighten Control Over Foreign Missionaries

Justice Ministry Reportedly Plans New Restrictions

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MOSCOW, NOV. 16, 2005 ( The Justice Ministry’s purported plan to tighten its control over foreign religious organizations on Russian territory has caused a stir in religious sectors.

On Monday the newspaper Vedomosti reported that the Justice Ministry would tighten the rules for granting visas to foreign missionaries.

The government agency also plans to simplify the process for the suppression of religious centers, and to increase the red tape for the registration of religious organizations, the newspaper said.

The document was prepared in the October meeting of the ministry’s Security Council, after discussing «foreign religious expansion in Russia.»

It was stated that in the past decade the number of religious creeds in the country grew to 69 from 20, according to the newspaper.

The restriction of visas was presented as the best option to control the growth of religious organizations, the report said. Since 2003, the Justice Ministry has had the power to decide whether a foreigner is welcome on Russian territory.

No official word

Vedomosti reported that the ministerial initiative, which faces study by the Duma, or lower house of Parliament, aims to do away with religious organizations if a crime of an «extremist character» is proven against such groups, or if they carry out illegal missionary activities.

Moreover, the initiative hopes to limit each religion to only one central organization, with a juridical character, on Russian territory, the report said. Hence, the 40-odd Muslim organizations registered officially in Russia would have to be combined into one to represent them.

To date, the Duma has not received word of any initiative to tighten control on foreign religious organizations, said to Sergei Popov, president of the Committee of the Lower Chamber for the Affairs of Social and Religious Organizations.

After the news in Vedomosti was published, some religious representatives said they knew nothing about such a document.

In statements to ZENIT, Father Igor Kovalevsky, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Russia, said that «if this plan is carried out, room would be made for an increase of the bureaucracy.»

«Moreover, it should be studied in detail, as without a doubt it poses very controversial aspects, mistaken or not well formulated,» he added.

For his part, Father Igor Byzhanov, secretary for Inter-Christian Relations of the Department of Religious Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, said: «It is the role of the state to regulate, in one way or another, the affairs of the country in religious matters.»

«Above all,» he told ZENIT, «care must be taken with the entry of missionaries of sects which could be, in an extreme case, like Aum Shinrikyo,» the group that launched a nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, which killed 12 and injured thousands.

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