How Russia is increasingly violating minority religious rights while its Orthodox Church increases its power

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) congratulates Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on his birthday during a ceremony in Moscow, Russia on November 20, 2016.Reuters

For the first time, Russia has been officially included among the worst countries in the world for religious freedom because of its ongoing crackdown against religious minorities, foreign missionaries and evangelists and last week's ban on Jehovah's Witnesses.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which monitors religious freedom violators for the State Department, listed Russia among six new top-tier 'countries of particular concern' in its latest annual report, released yesterday.

The former Soviet state is the only country where repression of religious freedom has intensified and expanded since USCIRF began monitoring it, according to officials.

Yet at the same time, Russia's Orthodox Church is consolidating its power and pursuing close ties with the country's authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin.

The new closeness between Church and state comes some 26 years after the end of the Soviet-era repression of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has around 165 million members worldwide.

President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, share similar authoritarian positions on human rights as well as issues relating to foreign policy, family values and more.

Last year, Putin drew international protests after introducing legislation which imposes harsh restrictions on religious groups. Known as the 'Yarovaya Law,' the measure included new police and counterterrorism measures that critics said directly echo the sweeping powers wielded by the KGB.

Within the law were tight restrictions on religious groups, especially smaller denominations.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia's dominant denomination, the Orthodox Church, has flourished.

Earlier this year, the Orthodox Church was steeped in controversy over its bid to take control of St Petersburg's landmark church, St Isaac's Cathedral, which was a museum. The row seemed a symbolic demonstration of the Church's increasing dominance.

A law passed in 1997 officially named the Orthodox Church alongside Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, as the country's four 'traditional' faiths.

After Orthodoxy, Muslims make up the second-largest religious group in Russia, and state funds have been used to help build mosques across the country.

Other major Christian denominations such as the Catholic Church have also traditionally been allowed to operate openly and largely without restrictions, though the Vatican and Russian Orthodox leaders have clashed in the past, including over ownership of ancient Church property.

But Protestants, for example, and other groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, have long been viewed with hostility from state officials and religious authorities, and last week's ban of the latter by the country's Supreme Court is just the latest example of the crack-down against non-Orthodox religious groups.

The Yarovaya Law was ostensibly about security, and among its most controversial provisions, it increased security agencies' access to private communications, requiring telecom companies to store all telephone conversations, text messages, videos, and picture messages for six months and make this data available to authorities.

But beneath the bigger headlines, the new law also required religious people to acquire official permits through a registered religious group. Further, it banned prayer meetings from taking place anywhere except buildings that are deemed officially religious, effectively ruling out house group style gatherings.

Members of religious groups were also reportedly barred from emailing invitations to people interested in services, with those who violate the rules potentially expelled from Russia.

The law doubtless contributed to Russia being included in the USCIRF list, and, as the Russian Orthodox Church tightens its grip alongside Putin, the country shows no signs of reversing its crackdown on religious minorities.