Archbishop Hilarion responds to U.S. State Dept. report on religious freedom

In late October, the State Department released the 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, a study annually submitted to Congress. Remarks on the study by Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, are available here. (The country report for Turkey is available here.) The Russian foreign ministry said, on publication of the report, that it was compelled “to reiterate our previous repeated assessments of the U.S. State Department report as a politically engaged, garbled document which intentionally distorts the real situation of religious freedom in Russia and keeps silent about positive developments in this field.”

Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk issued his own response to the State Department study (full text at the bottom of this post) which amounts to a summary of the Moscow Patriarchate’s position on religious freedom in Russia. While much more temperate than the Russian government’s response, the archbishop’s letter did, however, question why the authors of the religious freedom report voiced “concern for the rights of Satanists.”

In a related development, today’s Moscow Times reports on proposed changes to the Russian Law on Religious Activity that some Protestant Christians say will result on a crack down on missionary activity:

Ordinary believers face fines for sharing their faith with strangers in the metro or on the street under amendments drafted by the Justice Ministry that are stirring worries among Protestant groups about a clampdown on religious freedom.

Under the proposed changes to the Law on Religious Activity, only leaders of registered religious groups and their officially authorized missionaries would be allowed to pass out religious literature, preach and talk about their faith in public, according to a draft of the amendments published in Kommersant on Wednesday.

Anyone else who shares their faith would face a fine of 2,000 rubles to 5,000 rubles ($65 to $170) for individuals and 5,000 rubles to 7,000 rubles ($170 to $230) for legal entities. Currently, no permits are required for missionary activities.

The amendments are expected to benefit the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, which rarely engages in missionary work, to the detriment of other Christian groups, which it regularly accuses of poaching believers.

Some Protestant groups said Wednesday that the amendments were a violation of Jesus’ call in Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

“Missionary activity is part of the Christian religion, and these proposals target not only our church but the Christian religion itself,” said Elder Mikhail Fadin of the Moscow Central Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.

Read the full text of “Missionaries Face Fines for Sharing Their Faith.”

The following was issued by the Moscow Patriarchate on Nov. 30:

Archbishop Hilarion’s assessment of the 2009 State Department Religious Freedom Report

In his letter to US Ambassador to Russia, Mr John Beyrle, the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external church relations, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, makes an assessment of the section on Russia in the US State Department Religious Freedom Report 2009. Below is the text of the letter.

Dear Mr Beyrle,

The Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations has studied the section on Russia in the US State Department Religious Freedom Report 2009.

I would like to remark with satisfaction that this document has taken into account many remarks made on previous reports. In particular, it no longer refers to the status of the Russian Orthodox Church as ‘status that approaches official’, as was stated, for instance, in the 2005 Report. The 2009 review contains information about the acts of vandalism against Orthodox places of veneration, which was not highlighted before. It is important that the Report underlines the role of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia in promoting religious freedom. It is gratifying that the 2009 Report was prepared with due consideration for information received during consultations with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. This practice cannot be but welcomed. It would be desirable that it should be broadened also in the future.

On the other hand, I would like to make some constructive remarks. Thus, considering church-state relations in Russia, the Report comes to the conclusion that the Russian Orthodox Church cooperates more closely with the Government than do other religious groups. In order to prove it, information is given about the Church’s numerous cooperation agreements with governmental bodies. In this connection, it should be remarked that the Church’s partnership relations with the state are called forth by real needs of Orthodox believers who are a majority in Russia. This cooperation is not carried out to the detriment of other religious communities. It does not contradict the law and is aimed at protecting the constitutional rights of believers.

An agreement is only a form in which relations of social partnership are shaped for the benefit of the whole society. Unfortunately, these relations were destroyed by the militant atheism in the Soviet time. Now the time has come to be guided in Russia not by an ideology whatever it may be but the interests of every individual and society as a whole. The Russian Orthodox Church is convinced that partnership relations with the state are the most adequate response to this challenge. It would be right to finalize these relations legally. At present, appropriate work is carried out, which does not contradict the constitutional foundations of the Russian State. It is also important to bear in mind that our Church does not claim the role of the only partner of the estate. Nothing should prevent other religious communities in the country from establishing constructive relations with the authorities.

We are convinced that the state should have the right to choose partners among organizations representing the civil society in fulfilling its socially significant functions. This practice is popular in Europe and is quite applicable to the Russian reality. Naturally, partnership relations with a state presuppose some privileges which involve additional obligations and responsibilities. We believe this model of church-state relations has proved to be effective and does not deserve criticism.

The Report gives considerable attention to teaching the knowledge of religion in schools. This theme is considered in more detail than it was in previous reports. It is important that the authors no longer proceed from the false premise that the compulsory teaching of religious disciplines is possible in Russia. The Basic Orthodox Culture course advocated by our Church is not a religious but culturological discipline in the strict sense. Nevertheless, we stand for its unconditionally voluntary study.

It is planned in Russia today to regularize the teaching of religious culture and the President of the Russian Federation has made an appropriate decision concerning it. After this reform is completed, every student, not only Orthodox but also a Muslim, a Jew and a Buddhist, should have the officially guaranteed right to study his or her own religious culture in school. At the same time, the schoolchildren who wish to study secular ethics or a similar discipline by choice will also be given this opportunity. The description the Report gives to the President’s new initiatives can hardly be called correct in spite of the fact that information about them has been widely publicized.

Discussing the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the army, hospitals and prisons, the authors make a quantitative comparison with the presence of other religious communities. In doing so, they ignore the fact that Orthodox believers in Russia, just as people of other traditional religions, have the right to spiritual support while serving in the army, being abroad or in hospital or being confined. Naturally, to meet the religious needs of the Orthodox majority, the Church needs more clergy than do other religious communities. The Church has to ensure this right using predominantly her own resources and means.

The Report deplores the restrictions imposed on some ‘new religious movements’. Regrettably, the document fails to mention the facts that have prompted these restrictions. The Church has been approached by many former followers of these movements, who have suffered psychological and moral traumas as victims of fraud. Church and secular rehabilitation centers have applied much energy to help these people to return to a normal life, to overcome suicidal inclinations and to restore family happiness. Therefore, what stands behind many restrictive measures of the state with regard to minority religious groups is more often its concern for the rights of citizens and the demands of citizens themselves. Moreover, in most countries in the world including the USA, there are public bodies who are critical of such groups and who consult all the sides concerned including the state. We know that some ‘new religious movements’ in the USA, which have recently acquired followers in Russia as well, have managed to put themselves in the focus of public attention and to entrust the American foreign policy department with a special concern for their interests. In Russia these organizations have not yet managed to enjoy a similar attention. Therefore, most of the Russian believers do not understand why so a disproportionally large part of the Report is devoted to the problems of these movements.

However, even taking into account complexities arising in the work of ‘new religious movements’, we reject the unfounded attempts to link the restrictive measures undertaken by the state with regard to them exclusively with the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church. Regrettably, there are examples of this approach in the Report.

The criticism of the struggle with extremism waged in Russia by competent bodies including courts appears somewhat strange. Religious extremism whatever mask it may put on is unanimously rejected by traditional religious communities in the world including Russian ones. It is extremism exploiting the inherent religious feeling that underlies international extremism and the struggle with it has cost the lives of many Russian and American servicemen. It is necessary to observe that the Interreligious Council in Russia has repeatedly made statements on extremism condemning the abuse of religious freedom and freedom of speech, be it anti-Semitism or publication of cartoons on the founder of Islam Mohammed or an anti-Christian exhibition in Moscow. In this context, the authors’ concern for the rights of Satanists appears ambiguous, especially as their cult involves the defilement of religious holy places, a survey of which is given in the US State Department Report.

The document of the US State Department points out that before the 1917 Revolution most of the churches were owned by the Russian Orthodox Church which was then an official Church. In fact, this property had a complex legal status which deserves a separate study. The Church does not claim all the property it owned in this or that way before the revolution. However, it is strange to assert that the property intended for religious purposes, which was created mostly with the donations of believers, should be used for other than religious purposes or should be owned by those who have nothing to do with it. The total confiscation of church property by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution in no way can be called fair or legitimate and for this reason cannot be regarded as an adequate ground for the assumption that the Church has lost its right to it or has never had such rights altogether.

In addition, I will remind you, the Russian Federation after joining the Council of Europe has assumed the voluntary obligation to return the property of religious organization which had been confiscated by the communist regime and often used in ways that insulted the feelings of believers. Churches were turned into clubs, warehouses, stables and garages. And in Moscow today there are church buildings hosting pleasure joints. I believe this problem of the pre-revolutionary status of the church property and grounds for its return to believers should be studied by the authors of future reports in more detail and we are ready to give all possible assistance in this endeavour.

The work of the US State Department to prepare surveys on the freedom of conscience in the world and in Russia is important. I urge that the sources of information used to draft the report should be more diverse and the authors of the document should maintain more active contacts with representative of religious communities and the wide range of expert and non-governmental organizations, which would make this work more objective and ensure its reception by the Russian people.


Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk


Department for External Church Relations

Moscow Patriarchate


  1. It is the epitome of irony and hipocracy that a government of a society that is engaged in a cultural war against Christianity (U.S.) would moralize against another country (RF) where Christianity is taking root once again. But then, on reflection, perhaps it is not irony and hipocracy but merely another front to wage its anti-Christian war.

  2. Michael Bauman :

    Nick, the report reflects the egalitarian utilitariansim of the US power elites. A mindset that devalues all faith by assuming no hierarchy of reality or values; a mindset that devalues all life with similar assumptions; a mindset that devalues genuine freedom by the same mindset.

    • Michael:

      DeTocqueville wrote that the time will come when Americans would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom. The time is approaching. However, rather than calling it egalitarian utilitarianism, I would think more apropos would be egalitarian hedonism, in the general culture, but egalitarian paganism with the elite culture. My definition of egalitarian paganism = giving equal worship to any thing but the Eternal Truth.

      • Michael Bauman :

        Nick, I think your description does violence to genuine paganism (now extinct) which had within it a genuine if incomplete and misunderstood appreciation for the divine.

        I don’t quarrel with your term egalitarian hedonism. What I think we are seeing though is nihlism at work and Nietzche’s term 😈 Will to Power 😈 being quite apt for the elite and the herd for the rest of us.

        Only living the ascetical/liturgical life of the Church allows us to cut through all the nonsense.

        • Michael: You are right. I may have inadvertently insulted genuine pagans where no offense was intended. I was thinking of the Slavic form of paganism, namely worship of “nature”. I also agree that a certain level of nihlism is an apt description of the elite. But even nihlism tends to evolve (self-correct) into something new as the old is or is being obliterated. The elite are looking for a new religion to fill the void and they have found it in “environmentalism”. There is a great distinction (which has escaped the thought processes in the EP) between stewardship of creation and worship of sticks and stones and ozone holes.

    • No, no. It does hold to a hiearchy of values: everything is subjected to “tolerance.” Everything is tolorated except Truth and conviction. What is the fashion of today takes precedence over tried and true principles handed down through the generations (that’s backwards, also bad. Tradition starts with my generation).

      Dostoevsky’s protagonist in “Crime and Punishment” upbraids someone for eavesdropping on his recounting his crime. “Ho, ho! So listening to private conversations within listening distance is evil, but bashing the heads of old women is fine. With thinking like that, you should get on the next boat to America!” was the reply. It seems Russia has regained that wisdom and moral insight.

      IIRC, De Tocqueville also said that the republic would last until the Congress realized that it could bribe the Public with the Public’s money. That day seems to have arrived.

      • You are correct Isa: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

        He also said: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

        • Interesting.

          Was de Tocqueville a student of the Athenian democracy I wonder?

          Same thing happened there…during the Peloponnesian War…the Athenian Assembly bought off the masses by spending money on them…it bought their temporary support, but killed the treasury – eventually leading to the Spartan victory and dictatorship.

          However he came up with it…this is a very interesting, and accurate quote.

          Best Regards,

      • Michael Bauman :

        Again Nietzche comes to mind the 😈 “transvaluation of all values 😈

      • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

        Yes. The only absolute the moral relativist holds to is that there are no absolutes.

  3. cynthia curran :

    Well, I take the other side, granted Russia is not as bad as Turkey but I think limiting protestants from preaching is not going to help the situation in the long run. The Russian Church may believe that its protecting people from Protestant errors but it just might cause more people to not become christians or cause a lot of people in the United States to not become Orthodox since the Orthodox in Russia limited Religious Freedom. Think if Protestants in the United States did the same think to Roman Catholics or Orthodox, I bet most people here would be opposed.

  4. Michael Bauman :

    #1. I have known a few Protestant missonaries to Russia from the early days. They all thought Russia was a heathen country. They had no idea the depth and nature of Russia’s Christian heritage-even the Protestant one. Ultimately that means they did not respect the people or what they had gone through. It is the same old Protestant distain for culture, community and people that destroys rather than saves.

    #2. Not all of the ‘missionaries’ have an interest in saving souls, they are con artists simply there to make money. Bishop Hilarion alludes to that reality. Should they not be regulated?

    Questions: What is religious freedom? What is there about Russian history and culture that leads one to expect a Protestant style, secular egalitarianism as we have in the U.S? Is our model of ‘religious freedom’ really better? If so, how and why?

    IMO, we all have religious freedom regardless of what the state does or does not do. What we don’t have is freedom from the consequences of our faith if the government is oppressive. Personally, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

    Religious freedom as taught in the west denies community, faith and culture in any context other than the individual. That means it is antithetical to any faith that acutally builds community and requires obedience, e.g, the Church.

    Religious freedom enshrined in law and inforced by the state all to easily becomes a tool that requires traditional Christianity to deny our historic self-understanding and the revelation with which we have been entrusted.

    If relgious education, for instance, is truly voluntary and available to all regardless of one’s faith, what is wrong with that. I suspect that the state department proponents of religious freedom don’t like that fact that only traditional faiths are represented. They want to demand that Satanism and all the other ‘faiths’ possible to invent from our fallen and diseased imaginations be taught to everyone, or no body gets to learn about theirs.

  5. cynthia curran :

    Well, a lot of Orthodox don’t like Protestants either. Case in point, when I hear Orthodox talk about either Roman Catholics or Protestants they will bring up the negatives of those groups or accuse Protestants and Roman Catholics of wanting a theology like the emperor Justinian but not the faults of Orthodox Civilzations like the Byzantines or the Russian Empire. Justinian putting the Manicheans to death and the montanists killed themselves instead of having Justinian put them to death. This is record in the ancient sources. Granted, Justinian lived in the 6th century and thought that some religious thought was too dangerious for a christian empire. Also, the worst by the Byzantine empire was putting to death for hersay the Paulicians. The Paulicans were a Gnostic group. Lots of Paulicians were put to death in the 9th century, according to John Julius Norwich in Byzantium: The Apogee. Granted, from the 9th century on, the orthodox were better than the Roman Catholic West and the eary Protesants. And the Russian Empire gave Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews second class status. So, Roman Catholics and Protestants are not the only enemy of religious freedom in the history of christan thought.

    • Michael Bauman :

      I will not defend sinfullness. You did not address any of my questions, just used events in history in a manner that is simply not pertinent to anything in my post.

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