Tuesday, October 22, 1996 8:24:43 PM

RUSSIA'S MOST TOLERANT PROVINCE FACES THREAT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service The once-heavy hand of Moscow seems to rest more lightly on Yakustk than on any other provincial capital in Russia.  The world's largest city built entirely on permafrost--it makes Moscow look like a tropical resort--Yakutsk is so isolated in northeastern Siberia that it is not even connected with the rest of the country's railroad network.  The Republic of Sakha (which also still uses its old name of Yakutia) can now keep a substantial share of the profits from its enormous gold and diamond reserves, previously controlled by the soviet government.  Perhaps even more important, Sakha is the homeland of one of the largest and most culturally advanced of Siberia's ancient tribes, a smiling, easy-going people who have subtly influenced the Russians who began settling here in the 17th century.  Of all the Russian provinces which Keston News Service has visited in recent years, this is the one with the most religious freedom.  But that may soon change: officials in Sakha's Ministry of Peoples ('Ministerstvo narodov') recently began to draft a law curbing minority faiths. In a 10 October conversation with Keston News Service, the press secretary of Sakha's PRESIDENT MIKHAIL NIKOLAEV said that the republic's ethnic Yakuts (roughly one-third of its total population of 1.3 million, spread thinly across a territory the size of India) have an ancient tradition of peacefulness and tolerance, shaped by the extreme conditions of the far north.  (Sakha is the coldest regularly inhabited place on earth, with winter temperatures reaching minus 71 degrees Centigrade.)  He emphasised that the republic convened an international conference on social and religious tolerance two years ago. Asked about the draft being developed by the Ministry of Peoples, he said that President Nikolaev did not yet have a position: 'He will listen to all the different opinions, and only then make up his mind'.  But the best way for the state to help spiritual development today, he said, is 'not to interfere'. Leaders of minority religious communities interviewed by Keston agreed that so far they have indeed been free of state interference and have even received active help from the authorities.  SULTAN GELAYEV, a leader in Yakutsk's Muslim community which is building what will be the world's northernmost mosque, said that the mayor of Aldan 300 miles to the south had invited him to fly down and address a gathering of that city's Muslims, even offering to organise the gathering himself and pay for Gelayev's ticket.   FR DANIIL, a Roman Catholic priest from Slovakia now assigned to Yakutsk, told Keston that Yakutsk's city government has encouraged his parish's youth programmes.  Baha'i organiser GALINA DANILOVA said that the republic's Ministry of Youth regularly invites her group to conferences, along with Krishnaites and evangelical Protestants.  ANATOLI PAVLOV of the Kut-Siur community, mostly urban intellectuals who are trying to revive the Yakuts' pagan traditions, said that the republican authorities are 'neutral' toward his group.  Leaders of the German-based New Apostolic Church and other groups financed by western Protestants gave similar accounts. Even the local representative of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which elsewhere in Russia often suffers worse discrimination than other confessions, told Keston that his small parish has so far enjoyed religious freedom.  FR ROMAN BLAGOV said that the head of the Moscow Patriarchate's diocese in Yakutia, BISHOP GERMAN, had asked the republic's Ministry of Justice not to register the parish--which consists entirely of people who have left the Moscow Patriarchate, including Fr Roman himself.  But all that the bishop managed to achieve, he said, was to delay the registration for a short time; the Ministry of Justice took the correct position that under current law they had no choice but to register Fr Roman's group.  Now meeting for worship in a parishioner's flat, the parish plans to build a chapel in a Yakutsk municipal cemetery--for which it has already received permission from the mayor's office. Even the most exotic religious groups seemed to have access to Sakha's state school system, sometimes even during regular class time--raising legitimate concerns about preaching to captive audiences.  A Baha'i visitor from America told Keston that he had addressed English-language classes in the state schools at the invitation of sympathetic Baha'i schoolteachers. But several religious leaders said that they have recently begun to experience problems.  Baptist pastor ALEKSEI EVERSTOV, whose congregation received free possession last year of a ramshackle but superbly located building just a block from the president's office, told Keston that the Yakutsk mayor's office has mysteriously stopped cooperating.  He said that documents confirming the congregation's right to occupy the building are now being delayed, and that the mayor's office has failed to give a clear answer to his repeated pleas for an explanation. 'We have heard that some people want to house an Orthodox school here,' he said. Pastor YURI VDOVENKO of the Swedish-financed 'Slovo Zhizni' ('Word of Life') community told Keston that the first negative signs for his group appeared in mid-1995, when the authorities denied them access to Yakutsk's main public square for singing and preaching during a civic holiday-- reversing the city's previous policy.  The community appealed to the mayor, who according to Vdovenko responded by asking, 'What does Bishop German say about this?'  Vdovenko also said that a Cossack leader and an official of the republic's Ministry of Peoples had put pressure on the director of the public hall which 'Slovo Zhizni' rents for worship services, demanding (so far unsuccessfully) that the Protestants be expelled. The latest and most serious threat to religious freedom in Sakha is a plan by the Ministry of Peoples for new regulations explicitly modeled on the restrictive laws which have recently been enacted by many of western Russia's provincial governments.  ANATOLI BRAVIN, Deputy Minister of Peoples, told Keston that the republic needs to act on its own because the federal government has been moving too slowly in this area.  He cited the laws of the Tula and Yaroslavl oblasts as especially 'interesting'.  (See Keston News Service, 'Tula Cracks Down on Religious Minorities', May 1996.)  The citizens of Sakha are 'an Orthodox people', he said, even if 'not systematically so' in that they combine many pagan superstitions with Orthodox practices. Two key officials in this push for new republican legislation are LIUDMILA MEDVEDEVA and SVETLANA NIKITINA, the first of whom is also head of the republic's Russian ethnic society.  During Keston's 8 October visit to their office in the Ministry of Peoples, Mrs Nikitina said that the authorities 'need to oppose religious movements which do not coincide with the interests of society.'  She cited cases in which young people have become involved in religious movements and then left their universities. She told Keston that she is now consulting officials in the Yaroslavl oblast's Ministry of Justice and is also gathering information from all the religious groups registered with Sakha's Ministry of Justice, seeking individual, face-to-face meetings with them. Mrs Nikitina said that since July the number of separate religious groups in the republic group had grown from 57 to 110, including those not registered.   'They are growing like mushrooms, especially the evangelical Protestants', she told Keston. 'Why are they growing so fast?  Who is financing them? Obviously Western missionary services.'  She clearly thought that the speed of growth and the fact of foreign financing in and of themselves provided sufficient reason to restrict these groups. Mrs Nikitina also cited the case of what she called an extremist Pentecostal sect based in Ust-Maya in southeastern Sakha, originally from the neighbouring Krasnoyarsk province.  She accused them of refusing passports and military service, keeping their children out of school, rejecting medical treatment for themselves and their dependents, ordering their members to sever contact with their families, and using coercive methods to keep disillusioned members from returning home. Vdovenko of 'Slovo Zhizni' confirmed that Mrs Nikitina had indeed requested individual meetings with him and with other Protestant pastors.   His own meeting with her, he said, took place in late September; she asked for a description of his confession's doctrinal beliefs and for a written account of his congregation's activities in Yakutsk.  He told Keston that she also suggested that the congregation join with other civic and charitable groups in public support of President Nikolaev and his programme of democratic reforms.  He replied to her that he and his members do indeed support democracy and the republic's current reforms, and that the church could vote on joining the president's coalition.   The 'Slovo Zhizni' leader's account of this meeting clearly raises grave questions about both religious and political freedom.  If the Ministry of Peoples is using the mere possibility of new regulations to pressure churches into supporting political incumbents even before such regulations are enacted, what might it do once the regulations are actually in force? Vdovenko also told Keston that he asked to see a copy of the Yaroslavl law, but that Mrs Nikitina refused to show it to him. Mrs Nikitina told Keston that her ministry's decision-making process is still in its early stages, and that the proposed new regulations might finally take the form of an administrative decree rather than a law.  She said that a draft would probably be ready by the end of the year, or at the latest by the spring of 1997. (END) MORE NEWS: NEW RESTRICTIONS ENACTED IN SVERDLOVSK OBLAST The lower house of Sverdlovsk oblast's parliament passed on the crucial 'second reading' stage new legislation restricting the rights of religious minorities, a source in Yekaterinburg told Keston News Service.  The new version of the bill, which cleared the lower house on 9 October and is now expected to become law by mid-November, includes at least one fundamental change.  It exempts from the oblast's strict new registration procedures those groups which are considered to be 'traditional religions'-- defined as those which have been present in the oblast itself (not merely in Russia as a whole) for at least 100 years.  Keston's source said that he did not yet have the exact text of the bill's new version, but that he understands that these 'traditional religions' would include the Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Jews. (END) --=====================_846055511==_ Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii" Lawrence A. Uzzell Keston Institute, Moscow office phone/fax (7-095) 928-8202 --=====================_846055511==_-- --- Internet Message Header Follows --- Received: from g23.relcom.ru (g23.relcom.ru [193.125.152.117]) by pulp.nildram.co.uk (8.6.12/8.6.12) with ESMTP id VAA14502 for ; Tue, 22 Oct 1996 21:39:56 +0100 Received: from d140.z194-58-227.relcom.ru by g23.relcom.ru with SMTP id AAA21061;  (8.6.12-Ext/1.0) Wed, 23 Oct 1996 00:24:43 +0400 Date: Wed, 23 Oct 1996 00:24:43 +0400 Message-Id: <199610222024.AAA21061@g23.relcom.ru> X-Sender: 9133.g23@pop.w.g23.relcom.ru X-Mailer: Windows Eudora Light Version 1.5.2 Mime-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: multipart/mixed; boundary="=====================_846055511==_" To: keston_institute@cin.co.uk From: "Uzzell Lawrence A." <9133.g23@g23.relcom.ru> X-Attachments: C:\WWD\YAKUT2.TXT;