ENGLISH VERSION: RUSSIA: Pussy Riot, blasphemy, and freedom of religion or belief
The way that Russia has handled the Pussy Riot case indicates that the authorities are using it to intensify restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. A shift from the Kremlin's initial response to the case suggests that a claimed moral outrage was not the motivation to prosecute, and that support for the Moscow Patriarchate is tactical. Since the Extremism Law was adopted in 2002, officials have used the same selective determination of what causes offence to persons of one worldview to restrict the freedom of religion or belief of people with a different worldview, as can be seen in prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses. This approach now also targets supporters of atheism. Arbitrary state prosecutions of some manifestations of religion or belief – such as by Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works - may soon be further strengthened by controversial proposed "blasphemy" amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Offences. The legal chaos proposed by state representatives after the Pussy Riot trial thus continues a well-established trend.
Three young women from the Russian feminist art collective Pussy Riot were handed down two-year prison terms on 17 August for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" (Criminal Code, Article 213, Part 2). The three had performed a short "punk prayer" immediately in front of the iconostasis in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 21 February. The sentence of one member was changed to suspended on appeal on 10 October.
These disproportionate punishments have given rise to widespread concern. But it should also be noted that disturbing people within a place of worship, in the way the group did, does violate the freedom of religion or belief of those within the Cathedral who were not part of the group. Yet there is an aspect of this case that poses a serious threat to everyone's freedom of religion or belief throughout Russia. For the way this trial has been handled indicates that the state authorities are using that case to advance their intensifying restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, Forum 18 News Service has found.
Given the Moscow Patriarchate's classification of the incident as "blasphemy" (koshchunstvo) on 3 April and President Vladimir Putin's reference to it as a "witches' sabbath" on 6 April, many observers have interpreted the trial as a sign of deepening relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.
Yet a marked shift in the nature of the state's response to the Pussy Riot incident suggests that the Kremlin is acting not to defend Orthodox Christianity. Instead the state appears to be seeking justification for greater restrictions on the linked freedoms of religion and belief and of expression, Forum 18 notes.
Opposition to Orthodox Christianity is equated with criminal activity in the initial state prosecution documentation against Pussy Riot, seen by Forum 18. "Opposing the Orthodox world" and even "disparaging the spiritual foundations of the state" are cited in 28 May 2012 charges against one member drawn up by Moscow city police investigator Artem Ranchenkov. These are repeated in the July 2012 indictment against all three women by the public prosecutor of the city's Central Administrative District, Denis Popov, published by Novaya Gazeta newspaper on 19 July.
Under the 1993 Constitution, "The Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be established as a state or obligatory one." (Article 14.1).
However, such references are absent from the 17 August 2012 verdict by Judge Marina Syrova of Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court, seen by Forum 18. Instead of "disparaging the spiritual foundations of the state", for example, the defendants are found to have "violated the constitutional foundations of the state" by inciting religious hatred. Ranchenkov, the police investigator responsible for the earlier charges, was transferred to another department as the Pussy Riot case reached its height in late June, reportedly in a "mere career manoeuvre", according to Interfax on 12 September.
A shift in the Kremlin's response to the Pussy Riot incident also suggests that the senior state authority was not motivated to prosecute by moral outrage. Initially, President Putin appeared unconcerned by the "punk prayer". Smiling and joking with female journalists on the eve of the 8 March International Women's Day public holiday, he remarked: "If they violated established church order, then I apologise to all believers and clergy on their behalf, if they could not do it themselves. I hope that it won't happen again."
Putin's remarks are clearly audible in a 7 March video of the event on Russia's official government website. Yet Interfax – in answer to whose question they were made – replaced "established church order" with "the law" in its same-day report, Forum 18 notes.
Putin's initial position was in sharp contrast to those then advancing the case against Pussy Riot. Mikhail Kuznetsov – one of the lawyers – and Igor Ponkin – one of the "experts" commissioned by Investigator Ranchenkov to analyse the group's lyrics – are familiar figures in the sphere of Church-state relations. Often in collaboration, they have lobbied for aims shared by the Moscow Patriarchate for over 10 years; Kuznetsov holds a church award from Patriarch Aleksi II.
In February 2000, for example, Kuznetsov and Ponkin wrote a letter – seen by Forum 18 – to the State Committee for the Affairs of the North, warning that US, Canadian and South Korean missionaries are part of a US government plot to seize Russia's north-easternmost region of Chukotka, followed by the whole of the Russian Far East, including by hypnotising residents. More publicly, the pair have lobbied intensively for the introduction of Orthodox Culture into state schools. A 2005 co-authored publication on Ponkin's "State and Religion" website is "Dishonest Discussion of Religious Education in Secular Schools: Lies, Fraudulent Substitutions, Aggressive Xenophobia" (in this case, the alleged xenophobia is towards Russians).
Yet the Kremlin has previously ignored the pair's efforts. Introduced nationwide in September 2012, the school subject Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics is broadly culturological and optional. It therefore differs substantially from the subject advocated by Kuznetsov and Ponkin, demonstratively blocked by Putin in 2007 (see F18News 24 September 2007: http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1021).
The inconsistency within the Kremlin's position and between it and the positions of those initially active in the Pussy Riot trial suggests that state support for the Moscow Patriarchate in the case is tactical rather than principled. This has significant implications for the religious freedom situation, Forum 18 notes. A genuinely pro-Orthodox position would support Moscow Patriarchate privilege consistently and in predictable spheres. A position determined by political circumstance may lead the Kremlin to constrict the Patriarchate – or even to profess support for its agenda that amounts to constriction as it undermines Church credibility with sections of the public.
Some prominent clergy have already complained of distortion of Church principle in court arguments. Objecting to a charge in the indictment against Pussy Riot members, Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev wondered in his 6 June blog entry whether the prosecution took Russian Orthodox to be "idiots, if they write that 'the eternal foundations and fundamental guide of the Church' are not the Gospels, but their invented ban on laity approaching the icons of the iconostasis on the solea!" (The solea is the raised platform - separated from the altar by the iconostasis – where Pussy Riot performed their "punk prayer").
"Extremism" policy continued
Unlike the earlier prosecution documentation, the court verdict against Pussy Riot does not claim their actions to be blasphemous in the eyes of