From - Fri Nov 07 11:48:18 1997
Lutheran churches in Russia question the new bill on religions
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia/GENEVA, Nov. 6, 1997 (lwi) - In a joint statement
on the new Russian bill on religions, the bishops of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR) and the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Russia and Other States (ELCROS) called upon international
organizations to monitor implementation of the religion law because of
"open questions in the bill." The two Lutheran churches are convinced
that for them "the new bill on religions will not entail essential
changes or restrictions," according to the statement signed Oct. 23 by
ELCIR Bishop Arri Kougappi and ELCROS Bishop Georg Kretschmar.
The statement begins with a brief description of the bill, "On Freedom
of Conscience and on Religious Associations," which the Russian
parliament - the Duma - passed Sept. 19 by a vote of 357 to 6. The law's
preamble acknowledges "the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the
history of Russia" and respects "Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism
and other religions which constitute an inseparable part of the
historical heritage of Russia's peoples." The churches' statement called
the preamble's formulation "acceptable" but argued that "it would have
been more logical to make a special reference to Orthodoxy after listing
the world religions."
The classification of religious associations and related legislation
were not different from an earlier version of the bill that Russian
President Boris Yeltsin vetoed in June. The religion law, among other
things, distinguishes between religious organizations and religious
groups. According to the new law, "religious groups are not registered
and are not legal entities, and religious organizations as registered
legal entities have extensive rights," explained the Lutheran statement.
The two Lutheran churches are considered religious organizations.
Problems with time limits of 50 and 15 years
At the heart of the religion law is the number of years a religious
association has been registered in Russia: if less than 15 years, it is
considered a "religious group" - if more than 15 years, it can qualify
to be registered as a "religious organization." A "centralized religious
organization," consisting of at least three "local religious
organizations" or congregations "of the same creed," may "use in its
name the words 'Russia,' 'Russian' or derivatives of these," only if it
has been registered in Russia for at least 50 years.
The Lutheran statement claims there are ambiguities in the law regarding
these time limits, adding that it is not clear what the required state
registration - and re-registration before Dec. 31, 1999 - should look
like. "In the future, once religious groups intend to register after 15
years, they will announce this to the local authorities," it said. "What
things are like for religious associations that existed already in
Soviet times without having been registered is not clear from the text
of the law," however local religious organizations may be able to
register if they are part of a centralized religious organization.
In Soviet times many congregations did not register "either for reasons
of conscience or from fear" and existed underground. In their joint
statement the two bishops expressed the hope that the authorities will
show benevolence when asked to establish applicants' proof of existence.
The churches' statement dealt extensively with the issue of the time
limit and its consequences. It admits that discerning in principle
between traditional religions and new groups is "a common distinction in
Europe," but the legal consequences drawn from it are dubious. "Is it
really necessary for 15 years to deny religious groups the opportunity
to register as legal entities thus curtailing their legal
possibilities?" it asked, noting that both time limits obstruct
religious freedom. "The 15-year time limit dates back to the times
before perestroika when the possibilities for free religious activities
were in fact very limited. The 50-year time limit also goes back to
Russia's darkest times," said the bishops.
Altogether Kougappi and Kretschmar remain optimistic. They express
certainty that the two Lutheran churches, "even under the new law on
religions, will obviously continue to exist as registered centralized
religious organizations which will be allowed to have the term 'Russian'
or 'Russia' in their names." The statement also refers to the centuries
of Lutheran history in Russia.
One of the first tests of the new law on religion in Russia involved a
Lutheran parish in Tuim in the Siberian province of Khakassia. The
Ministry of Justice in Abakan, the capital of Khakassia, reversed an
earlier decision to cancel the parish's registration. Pastors Vsevolod
Lytkin and Pavel Zayakin told Keston News Service they received a
written notice dated Oct. 6 which cited Russia's 1990 law on religious
freedom as reason to close the parish, but the new law on religion
replaced that law on Oct. 1. They contested the ruling and received,
within hours, another document canceling the Oct. 6 letter. The pastors
remain uncertain of how the parish will be classified under the new law.
The parish in Tuim is an independent congregation with historical links
to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.
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