By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian lawmakers are calling for jail sentences for people guilty of offending religious feelings, in a move that could tighten the bonds between President Vladimir Putin and the resurgent Orthodox Church.
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, adopted a declaration on Tuesday saying the killing of spiritual leaders, vandalism against church property and “blasphemous acts of hooliganism” posed a threat to Russia and must be countered.
The vote came weeks after members of punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years’ jail for performing a protest song in a cathedral, and coincides with widespread anger in the Muslim world against an online video mocking the Prophet Mohammad.
“All these actions are aimed at destabilizing the centuries-old spiritual and moral foundations of Russia, discrediting traditional values and, in essence, serve to ignite civil strife and undermine the country’s sovereignty,” the Duma resolution said.
The declaration has no binding force but sets the tone for legislation that Yaroslav Nilov, head of the Duma committee on civic and religious groups, said would be presented to parliament as early as this week.
Nilov said a proposed amendment would introduce criminal responsibility for offences against religious beliefs and feelings and impose a jail term of up to three years.
Alternative punishments would be fines of up to 300,000 roubles ($9,700) or community service, the daily Vedomosti reported, citing unidentified pro-Kremlin lawmakers.
Critics said such laws would blur the line between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church and called the move part of a crackdown on dissent under Putin, who began a six-year presidential term in May.
“A very alarming process is occurring now: our state is starting to incorporate the Russian Orthodox Church into itself as a part of the state,” said Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition lawmaker who has taken part in street protests Putin’s foes say have prompted a Kremlin crackdown.
Putin, in recent comments on Pussy Riot, the global protests over the video “The Innocence of Muslims” and the killings of Islamic leaders in Russia, has said that extremists were trying to tear Russia apart and that the feelings of the faithful must be protected by the state.
Last month, a suicide bomber killed an influential Islamic cleric in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan on a day when Putin was warning against religious extremism in Tatarstan, a long peaceful majority-Muslim province where the chief mufti was wounded and a deputy killed in attacks in July.
Mark Feigin, a lawyer for the Pussy Riot band members, said criminal punishments for offending religious faith seemed to contradict the constitution, which says Russia is a secular state, and was motivated by a desire to suppress dissent and to protect those in power, not religious believers.
“The return to such archaic norms … is no more than a measure by the authorities in reaction to political events,” said Feigin, referring to protests against Putin.
Feigin said he believed the plans for stiff punishments for offending the feelings of the faithful were the product of a “traditionalistic, paternalistic union of the current authorities and the church to resist the influence of what they see as harmful democracy of Western make.”
Russia has dismissed Western criticism of the jailing of the women from Pussy Riot, with the Foreign Ministry saying the different views pointed to a “clash of civilizations”.
“We are facing the possibility of losing our own cultural face, our national cultural code and our moral linchpin,” Putin told his culture and arts council in the Kremlin on Tuesday.
Some religious leaders welcomed the Duma declaration, but Moscow rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt told Ekho Moskvy radio that the threat of jail would not foster tolerance.
“People can be taught how to behave by their families or at school but not be making punishment harsher,” he was quoted as saying.
(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Andrew Roche)