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. *       *       * ---------------------------------------------------------- Thank you Gary Skinner Manager [CRNews] Sydney Australia ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ |          THE CHRISTIAN REPORTER AND CRNEWS |                             Gary & Joanne Skinner   |           P.O. 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