Comments made by Sergey Zakharov to the article “Got the Order to Believe”

29 April 2013
The high profile case following shocking performance of Pussy Riot in the Christ the Savior Cathedral and subsequent multiple anticlerical actions have obviously alarmed the higher-ups: in the autumn the same year, the State Duma suggested to create a new law meant to penalize offenders for violation of religious feelings of believers. Surprisingly, no one asked believers whether they want such a law to be passed, or not.

On April 9, the much-debated bill was passed by the State Duma by a record majority of votes. It was supported by 330 deputies (the number of votes requisite for passing a bill is 226). However, in less than a week, being afraid of harsh critic from outside experts, and society, they decided to renounce introduction of the new law. Alternatively, amendments were made to the existing 148 Article of the Criminal Code “Obstructing the exercise of the right to freedom of conscience and religious confessions”. As early as at the planning stage, the new amendments were supported by representatives of all traditional religions in Russia who declared that in the context of scandals caused by the performance of Pussy Riot, cutting of crosses in the Russian regions and riots in the Islamic countries provoked by the film “Innocence of Muslims”, violation of believers’ feelings should be punished with the most severe sanctions.

Disputes related to the bill didn't cease for the last half a year. The first version stipulates that public violation of religious feelings and belief of citizens, church services and other religious practices should be sanctioned with a penalty up to 300 thousand rubles, or compulsory labor for up to 200 hours, or imprisonment for up to three years. Violation of objects of worship, places meant for church services and other religious practices should be sanctioned with a penalty from 100 to 500 thousand rubles, or compulsory labor for up to 400 hours, or imprisonment for up to five years.

“I am a believer, and my feelings are violated by the Law “On violation of feelings of believers”

Vagueness of wording, severity of sanction and the general inadequate environment concerning the need for urgent enactment of the bill promoted multiple myths and guesses in mass media. A the half-joking note was spread in social networks, related to measures to be taken if criminal proceeding were initiated against someone under this article: “If a believer affiliates themselves with Orthodoxy or Christianity, ask them to quote the Gospel from Matfey, chapter 17, verse 20. This verse contains clear criteria to determine whether an individual has faith in G-d, i.e. may be described as believer, namely: an individual should have the ability to perform telekinesis and to move mountains”. Everyone understood at once that the new law should be corrected immediately.

Whom we should we limit and whom should we protect?

“Expert Severo- Zapad” interviewed several expert experts in the area of law and theology, to take their opinions concerning the bill and necessity to issue such law in Russia. “In circumstances where believers were exposed to/threatened with violence, and their property was destroyed or damaged, such offence was qualified as a crime under an article of specific part of the RF Criminal Code, and article 148 of the RF Criminal Code”, said Sergei Zakharov, a lawyer of law office S&K Vertical. “The State Duma passed a bill in the first reading, which stipulates for upgrading of penalties for any acts involving violation of citizens’ religious beliefs, or aimed at violation of objects of worship. That said, article 148 of the RF Criminal Code will cover all the constituent elements of offence, and there will be no need for additional qualification using other articles of the RF Criminal Code”.

Peter Balkunov, a lawyer at the law firm “Belykh and Partners” refers to introductory report by deputies of the State Duma, that reads to the effect that “... the bill was meant to deepen provisions of the existing Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations” so as to eliminate of gaps in legal regulations to the extent concerning responsibility of persons that violate religious beliefs of Russian citizens professing Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions making an integral part of historical legacy of peoples of Russia and/or violating objects of worship (pilgrimage), places intended for church services, and other religious practices and ceremonies of religious associations”. However, Balkunov pointed out that introductory report does not contain a single word about freedom of conscience, that provides for citizens’ right to profess the religion they have chosen or to profess no religion at all”. Consequently, there is a need for an important modification: “The initial version of the bill contradicts Article 14 of the Russian Constitution, which stipulates for separation of religious associations and state and their equality before the law. It also contradicts Article 19 of the Russian Constitution which stipulates for citizens’ equality before the law irrespective of their attitude towards religion”.

Andrei Kuraev, protodeacon of the Russian Orthodox Church has made an important entry in his Livejournal: “It would be a good thing if the State Duma makes a preamble to the amendments, and explained that by defining these norms legislators do not intend to exclude religious life from the area of criticism, polemic or discussion. Actually, amendments do not prohibit criticism or discussion. What I am referring to is conscious desire to violate an object which is sacred for a significant group of people”. In the same entry he added the following “I wish this new amendment would extended to cover not only religious, but also national, and civil sacred objects, e.g., monuments to soldiers of the Great Patriotic War”, and that is in line with opinion of many citizens surprised at such separation of “spiritual” and “not spiritual” memorial objects.

Dissenting overtones

Society and experts are also indignant at linguistic and legal uncertainty of suggested terms (“church service”, “humiliation of church services”, “sacred image”, “religious feelings”, “religions making an integral part of historic heritage of the people of Russia”) which can be interpreted too broadly, and are subject to modification in the new version of the law. As to the issue of how to determine whether a person is a believer or not, our expert at “S&K Vertical” responded as follows: “From what we can see, a believer is an individual who considers themselves as such. As to the way he prays and ritualizes, is its private affair, what is most import important that their public acts should not violate the generally accepted rules existing for centuries. Freedom of religion consists in that.”

Curiously enough, the law is criticized by clergymen as well. In his Livejournal entries protodeacon Kuraev spoke about the need to even more reduce the extent of the law's application, so far as the word “feelings” is concerned: “Feelings are an immeasurable and absolutely private reality, no one can check it; let us suppose that I came to judge and prosecutor and declared, that my feelings are hurt. Who can ascertain whether my statement it true or false, who can do it but me? No examination can override my feelings. What experts? I have a delicate psyche, and in general, to you, to atheists, us, Muslims not to understand, and that's it offends me! ". Peter Balkunov is hopeful that “when the bill will pass in second and third reading, it will already contain legally correct wording and no new concepts including such uncertainties”.

Nevertheless, it is greatly to be feared, that, despite new amendments, article will be applied in a differentiated way and concern generally Orthodox Christianity. Sergei Zakharov partially refutes such arguments, citing as an example performance of members of Pussy Riot who were convicted under the article “Hooliganism”. However their case shows that it is worth while penalizing people for such violations, based on other grounds: “The state, in turn, couldn't help but react by enacting a new legislation. From our point of view, a similar reaction from the state would occur if such actions were directed not only at Christians, but any other religion in the territory of the Russian Federation”. Vladimir Legoyda, Chair of Synodal communication department explained that, in any case, offenders will be punished not for emotional response, but for quite different matters: “should someone paint a swastika on a synagogue, they shall be punished not because it made some people feel uncomfortable emotions. By painting such symbol, they linked themselves with those who killed people, and shared their misanthropic ideology. And if society is willing to prevent bad things from happening again, it has to take measures immediately”. According to Sergei Zakharov, “The new version of the article is not dangerous to law-abiding people in the Russian community, it cannot upset the interfaith balance, and time and judicial practice will show whether it is efficient or not”.

Instead of an Epilogue

It is worth noting that prior to quoting from clerical representatives mentioned in the article, “Expert Severo-Zapad” interviewed other candidates, and many of them were unable to comment on the bill (which was meant to protect feelings of believers) having mentioned that they are not in the picture. Some of them even were unaware of such bill.

Currently, the complete bill was not introduced in the State Duma of the Russian Federation yet. There is only a discussion that involves, on top of everything else, extension of already existing 148 Article of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The final draft of a proposed law is expected to go before the Duma at the soonest possible time.

Anastasia Fyodorova

“Expert Severo-Zapad”

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