Right to rites: Russia may ban unsanctioned public prayer

RIA Novosti / Ilya Pitalev

RIA Novosti / Ilya Pitalev

The Russian Ministry of Justice has proposed a bill that would make illegal any unsanctioned prayer services and rites held outside religious sites or cemeteries. Such religious events would require permission from authorities.

The Justice Ministry has proposed tough amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. Currently, worshipers are allowed to hold religious ceremonies in public places if they inform the local administration in advance about the planned gathering.

Under the proposed bill, unsanctioned ceremonies — such as public prayers or religious meetings — are allowed on territories and in buildings belonging to religious organizations, on pilgrimage sites, at cemeteries and crematoriums and in private accommodations.

In all other cases, worshippers must have their gatherings approved by a local administration — analogous to the contentious ‘anti-rally’ law adopted in 2012. The bill significantly increased the punishment for organizing and taking part in illegal protests, and introduced more regulation over rallies.

RIA Novosti / Andrey Rudakov
RIA Novosti / Andrey Rudakov

The hotly debated legislation was intended to regulate Russia’s mass protest movement, which has seen a dramatic rise in activity since the country’s December 2011 parliamentary elections.

The main argument in favor of the law was that one person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins — when many citizens are exercising their right to freedom of expression, their protests should not disturb others’ lives.

Some religious celebrations, which are often held right in the streets, have also been a source of irritation for many of Russia’s city-dwellers. Thousands of Muslims from Central Asia have immigrated to Russia, especially to large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, bringing their traditions with them. The most crowded Muslim religious festivities take place twice a year, when believers celebrate end of Ramadan (Eid al Fitr) and the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha).

Epiphany bathing on the Feast of Theophany in Kuskovo estate, eastern Moscow (RIA Novosti / Anton Denisov)
Epiphany bathing on the Feast of Theophany in Kuskovo estate, eastern Moscow (RIA Novosti / Anton Denisov)