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Worldcrunch

After Pussy Riot Trial, Russia Moves To Criminalize Religious Insults

Article illustrative image Partner logo A Moscow rally last month in support of Pussy Riot

MOSCOW - The Duma, Russia's parliament, announced a campaign last week to “protect the rights of religious people.” Adding teeth to the initiative, the parliament has also now proposed a new law that would punish anyone who insults the feelings of religious believers with up to three years in jail. Insulting a holy site would carry a penalty of up to five years. 

Both the campaign to protect the rights of believers and the proposed changes to the criminal code -- touted as sending a strong message to anti-religious extremists -- have gotten support from representatives from all of the traditional religions in Russia. In expressing their support, the country’s religious leaders have mentioned the Pussy Riot scandal, the vandalism of crosses around the country and the riots across the Muslim world in reaction to the film “Innocence of Muslims.”

“To counteract insults to citizens’ religions beliefs and feelings, as well as to protect holy objects, sites and ceremonies from insult,” the deputies in the Duma want to put a new entry in the Criminal Code to make insulting religious beliefs a criminal act. 

Insulting the feelings of religious believers could be punishable by a fine of some $10,000 and three years in prison; insulting churches, mosques or synagogues would carry a higher fine and a five-year prison sentence. 

According to the head of the human rights organization Aurora, Pavel Chikov, the Pussy Riot affair is one of the most important motivations for this new law project. The three young activists were sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism" after holding a punk prayer in a Moscow cathedral.

Many lawyers who followed the trial said the conviction under the hooliganism charge was tenuous, and that really all the women could be sentenced to was a small administrative fine for disrupting the public order, given that they did not cause any damage to the Cathedral. “If they had done something similar after the adoption of this law, they would certainly have been tried for insulting the feelings of religious believers,” Chikov explained.

Boomerang for Orthodox?

Russian Orthodox activists of varying degrees of radicalism have regularly acted against those who they feel insult religious belief, and often those on their black list are modern artists. Orthodox activists’ preferred method of protest has been to disrupt their expositions, and they often file complaints against artists and galleries under statutes that forbid religious hatred.

“It is very likely that the prosecutor, the Russian Orthodox Church and the various nationalist-orthodox organizations will gain a major weapon against modern art, and that will seriously increase the amount of self-censorship,” said art curator Yuri Samodurov, who was tried under the religious hatred law for an exposition in 2005. 

The head of the association of Orthodox experts confirmed for Kommersant that the church was getting just the kind of law that it wanted. “Those who slander the church and the Patriarch will think twice now before they commit blasphemy,” he said.

In fact, Orthodox leaders have decided not to wait until the law has actually been adopted - having already filed a suit for "moral damages" against the designer Artemi Lebedev for a post on his blog that they found insulting. In part, the plaintiffs are disturbed that he wrote the word “god” in all lowercase letters. 

The Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the deputies' initiative, saying that the current laws are insufficient to protect the feelings of religious believers. The representative of the Council of Muftis in Russia agreed, saying, “We need to have laws so that a person who is thinking about insulting believers will think about the consequences.”

At the same time, if adopted, the new law could very well be used against the Orthodox Church. “I have seen several videos where Orthodox believers destroy the small bookshops of Seventh-Day Adventists or chase Hare Krishna followers. I am sure that the first suits will come from the ‘small religions’ and will be against the Hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church,” said the gallery owner Marat Gelman, who has been a defendant in several suites brought by the Church against art expositions.

Seventh-Day Adventists are already ready to take advantage of the new law. “Of course we will use the new law every time that Protestants in Russia are insulted,” said the head of the Russian Evangelical Council Sergei Ryakhovski. 

Human rights activists fear that in the future believers will be made the arbiters of what they deem is appropriate under the criminal code. “I am convinced that it will be abused on a massive scale," said Alexander Verkhovskii, head of the anti-extremism monitoring organization Sova. "There were already more than enough laws to protect the feeling of believers. This law is obviously just to stop all criticism towards the Russian Orthodox Church.”  

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About this article source Website: http://www.kommersant.com/about.asp

Kommersant ("The Businessman") was founded in 1989 as the first business newspaper in the Russia. Originally a weekly, Kommersant is now a daily newspaper with strong political and business coverage. It has been owned since 2006 by Alisher Usmanov, the director of a subsidiary of Gazprom.

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