Former communist Russia now upholds freedom of religion on paper, but practices a different policy in real life.
Reports indicate that religious freedom is being squashed under President Vladimir V. Putin, whose government has in a sense tacitly endorsed the Russian Orthodox Church as the official state religion. Putin frequently appears with the Orthodox head, Patriarch Aleksei II, on television.
Other Christian denominations, however, are suppressed – proselytizing by Protestants is all but banned and harassment of Protestant worshippers is meant to discourage adherents, according to the New York Times.
Protestant groups are linked to the United States and the West, groups that both Putin and Aleksei often denounce in their effort to restore Russia's power that was lost after the dissolve of the Soviet Union.
In Moscow, the city's chief Russian Orthodox priest gave a sermon last month on local television with the theme of Protestant heretics.
"We deplore those who are led astray — those Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, evangelicals, Pentecostals and many others who cut Christ's robes like bandits, who are like the soldiers who crucified Christ, who ripped apart Christ's holy coat," declared the priest, the Rev. Aleksei D. Zorin, according to the New York Times.
Protestant churches are required by law to register with the government if they do anything ore than pray in an apartment. But even when the churches register, the government usually finds fault with their paperwork and reject their application to be a legal body of worshippers
"They have made us into lepers to scare people away," said the Rev. Vladimir Pakhomov, minister of a Methodist Church in Russia. "There is this climate that you can feel with your every cell: 'It's not ours, it's American, it's alien; since it's alien we cannot expect anything good from it.' It's ignorance, all around."
In some areas, officials accuse the American military intelligence of using Protestant "sects" to gain access to Russia.
Russian officials usually refer to Protestant churches using the term "sect."
While church attendance remains low, Russians are embracing Russian Orthodoxy as part of their identity. A recent poll showed 71 percent of respondents consider themselves Russian Orthodox, up from 59 percent in 2003.
There are about 2 million Protestants out of Russia's 142 million population.
The Russian Orthodox Church also has a tense relationship with the Vatican, accusing Catholics of trying to convert Russians.
Russia's population is composed of about 15 to 20 percent Russian Orthodox, 10 to 15 percent Muslim, and only about two percent other Christians, according to the CIA World Factbook. A large population of Russia is non-practicing believers or non-believers, a result of the atheistic decades under Soviet rule.
A major study by the German think tank Bertelsmann Foundation found that Russia is the least religious country in Europe, with only 50 percent saying they are religious and only seven percent, highly religious.