Friday, 11 July 1997

EUROPEAN UNION FORMALLY PROTESTS AGAINST RUSSIA'S RELIGION BILL by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     The European Union has officially protested against the new bill on church-state relations which is now awaiting PRESIDENT YELTSIN'S decision.  On 9 July the ambassadors from Great Britain and Luxembourg and the charge d'affaires of the Dutch Embassy personally visited the Russian Foreign Ministry to present a formal diplomatic note expressing the Union's concern.  A source in one of the embassies told Keston News Service in an 11 July telephone interview that the note specifically requested that Yeltsin reject the bill.     In keeping with the European Union's procedures, the three embassies are the spokesmen in Russia for the Union's rotating presidency. Luxembourg is the current president, Holland the immediate past president, and Britain is to be the 1998 president.     On 10 July the Presidency of the European Union issued the following statement in Vienna: 'Echoing several previous interventions concerning the new Russian legislation on freedom of conscience and religious associations, the European Union is concerned by the fact that the Federal Assembly (sic) of the Russian Federation adopted this legislation on 4 July 1997, after its adoption by the Duma on 23 June.  This law, should it be promulgated by President Yeltsin, would severely restrict the religious freedom which now exists in Russia and which is guaranteed by the Constitution, and would contradict the principles to which the Russian Federation has subscribed as a state participating in the OSCE.  In regard to this, a demarche was presented yesterday by the three ambassadors representing the European Union in Moscow.'     NOTE: At the time of writing the European Union's statement was available only in French, and was translated by Keston into English. Only the original text has official status. (END)       Friday, 11 July 1997 RUSSIA'S PROPOSED RESTRICTIONS UNPARALLELED IN EUROPE     by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     Does Russia's proposed new law on religion differ from those of western Europe?  According to the bill's supporters, the answer is No.  The supporters have repeatedly accused the proposal's critics, both domestic and foreign, of trying to impose an 'American model' on a country which simply seeks to join the mainstream European tradition on human rights.  The supporters' version has been echoed uncritically so often in Russia that even opponents of the bill have told Keston that some of its most controversial provisions simply parallel those of Lithuania or Greece.     In his crucial 18 June speech before the lower house of parliament, the legislation's chief sponsor, Communist deputy VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV, assured his colleagues that it would be completely consistent with the laws of Germany, Greece and the Baltic states.  He said that the draft created a mechanism of registration with two levels, and that such a system already exists in west European countries which he said make distinctions 'between real religions and sects'.  His proposal, he said, reflected the Russian constitution, international norms and international experience.   Zorkaltsev did not mention that his bill, hastily drafted behind closed doors with no public scrutiny, included several provisions sharply different from those of the religion bill which the Duma had tentatively approved the previous July.  For example, he did not mention that those provisions would deny the rights of a 'legal person' to any religious body registered in Russia for less than 15 years.  Under the rules of debate imposed by Zorkaltsev and by Duma speaker GENNADI SELEZNYOV, the bill's opponents were not able to raise these issues on the floor.  As a result, the average deputy or observer with no other knowledge of the issue was given the impression that Zorkaltsev was simply proposing a modified version of the previous year's bill, with no particularly controversial new elements.  That is the view which dominated most of the early, superficial accounts in the Russian media.     Several key figures had already advised Zorkaltsev's religion committee that the 15-year rule would be problematic, even before the committee approved its chairman's new proposal on 6 June. VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY, a Protestant legal scholar frequently consulted by the committee, told Keston News Service just before the 6 June meeting that he had made it clear that newly registered religious groups in Lithuania do not have to wait 25 years to receive the rights and status of a 'legal person', but enjoy that status from the day of their initial registration. A committee source told Keston that even the Duma's own staff had expressed concerns about the 15-year provision.   Nevertheless, by the end of June Zorkaltsev's version had come to be one of the central arguments the bill's supporters.  It was echoed by Yeltsin aide ANDREI LOGINOV in a 25 June interview with Keston and by YEVGENI NIKIFOROV, editor of the ultra-nationalist newspaper 'Radonezh', at a 27 June press conference.  It has also been used repeatedly by VIKTOR KALININ, the former official of the old Soviet Council for Religious Affairs who now serves as PATRIARCH ALEKSI'S legal adviser.  An aide to a Duma member who opposes the bill called the pattern 'a classic campaign of disinformation'.   The leaders of this campaign have often referred to Lithuania's 1995 'Law on Religious Communities and Associations' but have rarely quoted it directly.  The key provisions, from the Lithuanian government's own English translation provided to Keston by the Lithuanian Embassy in Moscow, are as follows:     'Article 5. The state recognises nine traditional religious communities and associations...Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Judaistic, Sunni Muslim and Karaite.'     'Article 6. Other (non-traditional) religious associations may be granted state recognition as being a part of Lithuania's historical, spiritual and social heritage, if they are backed by society and their institutions and rites are not contrary to laws and morality.  State recognition denotes state backing of the spiritual, cultural and social heritage of religious associations....Religious associations may request state recognition following the elapse of a period of no less than 25 years from the date of their initial registration in Lithuania...The initial registration...has taken place, provided that the religious association acted legally (was registered) in Lithuania after February 16, 1918.'     'Article 10:...'Newly established (re-established) traditional religious communities and associations shall acquire the rights of a legal person, pursuant to a report in writing of their establishment (re-establishment), to the Ministry of Justice by their authorities...'   'Article 11: 'Other religious communities and associations shall acquire the rights of a legal person upon registration of their statutes...The Ministry of Justice shall register the later than within a six-month period from the time of their submittal...'   In short, even a non-traditional group with no historic roots in Lithuania can normally enjoy the full legal status of a legal personality within six months of filing the necessary documents with the secular authorities.  Once it has that status, such a group can have a bank account; rent or own real estate or other property; engage in publishing, broadcasting, educational and charitable activities; and enjoy tax privileges.  By contrast, if Russia's proposed law is signed and is enforced literally, it will deny those rights not only to newcomers such as Mormons but also to purely indigenous religious bodies, such as the 'initsiativniki' Baptists or the True Orthodox Church, which have existed in Russia for decades or even centuries but which were denied official recognition by the atheist Soviet state.     On 9 July the International Academy for Freedom of Religion or Belief - a nonsectarian organization of experts on religious liberty which has sponsored conferences and consultations on emerging laws in various countries in Eastern Europe - released a detailed statement on Russia's proposed legislation.  The statement included the following passages:   'Contrary to representations made by supporters of the legislation, no other European country imposes a 15-year barrier to acquisition of legal personality.  While it is true that many European countries afford different religious organizations differing levels of recognition, all those that comply with the European Convention and with OSCE Commitments make some form of legal entity available to religious organizations whereby they can carry out the full range of religious activities.  Many supporters of the Russian Law cite a recent Lithuanian law as justification for the 15-year requirement in the Russian legislation.  But the Lithuanian example shows precisely what is wrong with the current version of the Russian Law.  While Article 6 of the Lithuanian law provides that religious associations may be recognized as traditional religious communities only after 25 years "from the date of their initial registration," it is clear both from Article 6 and from Article 11 that "non-traditional" religious groups may attain legal personality in a relatively short time, not to exceed six months.  With this status, they can carry on the full range of activities open to "traditional" religious communities.  The problem with the Russian legislation is that it bars numerous religious groups from access to what elsewhere is routine access to legal entity status.     'In Germany, constitutional provisions indicate that some measure of permanence is a prerequisite to acquiring "public corporation" status, but most smaller religious groups have now acquired this status, and even those who don't are free to organize as privately registered societies free to carry out their religious mission.   Among the groups that have "public corporation" status in Germany (in addition to the larger religious denominations) are: Baptists, Christian Science, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Free Churches, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites, Methodists, the New Apostolic Church, the Salvation Army,  Seventh Day Adventists, and Unitarians. Many other groups are given legal personality as registered organizations under the civil code.  A Federal Constitutional Court decision in 1991 made it clear that if structures provided by the Civil Code were inconsistent with the ecclesiastical polity of a religious organization (in the case: the Bahai religion), religious freedom concerns oblige public authorities to make exemptions to accommodate differences in religious belief.  It is absolutely clear under German law that the civil law entities enjoy the same full measure of religious freedom that those with public corporation status enjoy.  Many of the foregoing groups would be deprived of entity status under the Russian Law.     'Examples could be multiplied, but the point is that all countries provide some kind of "base level" entity that is available to all religious groups willing to abide by the laws and constitutional order of the country involved. Professor Silvio Ferrari, a member of the Board of the International Academy and holder of the Chair in Ecclesiastical Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Milan, indicates he is aware of no country within the European Community that must prove 15 years of activity as a precondition to acquiring legal personality.  All make available some form of legal entity so that religious groups can carry out the full range of their lawful religious activities.     'In the contemporary world, for most religious associations, deprivation of entity status is a major encroachment on religious freedom.  It is for this reason that Principle 16(c) of the Vienna Concluding Document (1989) commits participating states in the Helsinki Process, including Russia, "to grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their states, recognition of the status provided for them in their respective countries."  The wording of this commitment recognizes that the precise legal form of legal personality varies from legal system to legal system, but access to some form of legal entity, without waiting fifteen years, is vital to meeting OSCE commitments. Failure to grant such status constitutes a limitation on manifestation of religion that violates Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, since it can hardly be said that denial of entity status "is necessary in a democratic society."  To the contrary, granting such status is a crucial feature of contemporary democratic society.' (END)