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Ivan Sekretarev, AP
People hold a huge Russian flag during a rally to celebrate the second anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea just off Red Square, with St. Basil Cathedral and the Kremlin in the back, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 18, 2016. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a hastily organized referendum not recognized by the United States and the European Union. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

SALT LAKE CITY — Religious freedom is under attack in Russia, as government officials — with the support of nearly half of the nation's citizens — protect the Orthodox Church at the expense of minority religious communities, according to recent reports.

The country's Supreme Court recently banned the Jehovah's Witnesses by labeling them an extremist group. Lawmakers also severely limited missionary activities in the last year by criminalizing preaching, praying and evangelization outside of registered religious sites.

These actions and others led Russia to appear, for the first time, on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's list of countries of particular concern, released at the end of April. The country has been criticized by religious groups, human rights organizations and world leaders as they search for ways to protect personal faith in that area of the world.

A new Pew Research Center report on religious belief and national belonging could aid these efforts. It analyzes citizens' relationship to religion and the prominence of the Russian Orthodox Church, shedding light on possible sources of rising religious tension.

The Orthodox Church's growing influence in Russia | Heather Tuttle

For example, the survey found that 57 percent of Russians, including around a quarter of the country's Muslims and religiously unaffiliated citizens, say being an Orthodox Christian is very or somewhat important to being "truly Russian." Researchers found widespread public interest in protecting and supporting the Russian church, even when doing so harms non-Orthodox believers.

Additionally, many Orthodox Christians throughout central and Eastern Europe view Russia as a valuable counterbalance to Western influence in the region, Pew reported, which may weaken support for outside efforts to protect religious freedom.

Russia post-USSR

Pew's new report shows that 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian population is much more religious than it was under a Communist regime, at least according to self-identification.

Seven in 10 Russian adults call themselves Orthodox Christian today, compared to 37 percent in 1991, Pew reported. In-person interviews for the survey were conducted from June 2015 to July 2016.

Researchers highlighted the return of religion as a key theme of the survey, while also noting that few self-identified Orthodox Christians actually pray or participate regularly in other religious activities.

For example, only 6 percent of Orthodox Christians in Russia say they attend church weekly, Pew reported.

Despite strong identity with Orthodox Christianity, a majority of Russians value religious and cultural diversity over a monoculture, Pew found. Around 6 in 10 adult citizens (58 percent) say it is better if society consists of people from different nationalities, religions and cultures, compared to 34 percent who prefer a much less diverse society.

That support for pluralism is tempered, however, by nearly half of Russian adults who say the government should prioritize the Russian Orthodox Church in religious policies. Forty-eight percent of Russians say the national church should receive financial support from the government, Pew reported.

State officials already do this in a variety of ways, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2017 annual report.

"Over time, the Russian government has come to treat the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church as a de facto state church, strongly favoring it in various areas of state sponsorship, including subsidies, the education system and military chaplaincies; this favoritism has fostered a climate of hostility toward other religions," the commission reported.

The commission concluded that the Soviet Union's stance on religion lives on in the way the Russian government treats minority faiths, including Islam, Buddhism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

People rally to celebrate the second anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea just off Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 18, 2016. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a hastily organized referendum not recognized by the United States and the European Union. A poster reads "Those who love their own motherland, they set an example of loving the whole mankind." A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a banner. | Ivan Sekretarev, AP

"The Russian government views independent religious activity as a major threat to social and political strategy, an approach inherited from the Soviet period," the commission reported.

This attitude is relatively common in former Soviet countries, as the Deseret News reported in December. Eight of the 15 countries are flagged by the religious freedom commission for ongoing violence and troubling religion laws.

"Orthodox leaders have become major political players, pushing for policies that can discourage the growth of newer faith groups," the article noted.

Russian influence

In recent years, Russia's approach to religious freedom has spilled over into nearby countries through military occupation.

"In Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014, Russian authorities have co-opted the spiritual life of the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority and arrested or driven into exile its community representatives. And in the Russian-occupied para-states of eastern Ukraine, religious freedom is at the whim of armed militias not beholden to any legal authority," the commission reported.

Sun rays light the Russian flag as people rally to celebrate the second anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, just off Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 18, 2016. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum not recognized by the United States and the European Union. | Ivan Sekretarev, AP

Pew's survey didn't ask about religious freedom policies, but it explored the status of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian government in the region. Many people in Orthodox-majority countries say Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christianity and to oppose unnecessary interference in their region from Western governments.

"Today, many Orthodox Christians — and not only Russian Orthodox Christians — express pro-Russia views," Pew reported, noting that some people in the region observe a conflict between Russian and Western values.

In its recommendations for how the U.S. government can safeguard religious freedom in the region, the commission suggested increasing funding of American and European media broadcasts in Russia, which could increase awareness and understanding of minority groups. It also advocated for stronger relationships between American diplomats and human rights activists, who work on behalf of smaller faith groups.

Government officials should "urge the Russian government to amend its extremism law in line with international human rights standards," commissioners argued.