Monday 4 August 1997

PATRIARCH ALEKSI AND PRESIDENT YELTSIN AGREE LAW MUST BE PASSED - BUT AMENDED PRESIDENT YELTSIN and PATRIARCH ALEKSI are reported to have held a 'cordial conversation' by telephone on Friday 1 August, that focused on the draft law 'On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations'. They agreed to work closely in its reworking and President Yeltsin said he was confident a law would be passed that protected Russian people who the Patriarch asserted are being preyed upon in their poverty, spiritual hunger and naivete. Press releases from the Kremlin and Moscow Patriarchate have stated that the law's purpose is to safeguard the Russians from pseudo-religious cults and sects. But Patriarch Aleksi has also said that 'It is dangerous to forego the principle of Christian unity, to twist the essence of Christian preaching and to destroy the national and spiritual culture in the society.' Comments like this have been interpreted negtively not only by the Roman Catholic Church but by also indigenous Protestant churches like the 'initsiativniki' Baptists and Pentecostals as well as other Russian Orthodox churches (Russian Orthodox Free Church, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Old Believers and True-Orthodox Church) - see the comments by leaders of these churches quoted below. It is unclear what changes the Patriarch will accept, but Yeltsin is reported to have directed his staff to consult closely with the Moscow Patriarchate in rewriting the bill. Patriarch Aleksi has also complained about a 'broad anti-Orthodox campaign unleashed by followers of pseudo-religious organisations', Itar-Tass news agency said, without specifying names. He called for opposition to this campaign at the end of a religious service to mark re-possessing the relics of Seraphim of Sarov in the Troitsky Cathedral of the Danilov monastery. Interfax reports Patriarch Aleksi as stating this campaign became especially evident when 'pressure was put on the individuals responsible for adopting and signing the [law on religion]'. He also said that pseudo-religious sects feel comfortable in Russia and that legal protection must be drawn up against them. In his official statement of 24 July on the situation that has developed around the Bill on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations Patriarch Aleksi stated the following: 'The Bill on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations creates pre-conditions for the effective protection of both the individual and society against the arbitrary actions of destructive pseudo-religious cults and foreign false-missionaries. It removes the considerable legal gaps existing in the legislation on the freedom of conscience presently in force, and the need for its radical improvement has been recognised by almost all the society.     'The Bill brings order into the legal status of religious organisations as legal entities and creates new conditions for religious education and cooperation between religious organisations and the state in charitable and cultural-educational work and in other spheres of social importance. (--Compare quotations below and various KNS articles suggesting that religious groups would in fact be unable to run religious education or charitable work (or publishing houses).) 'The text of the Bill, which is a fruit of extensive efforts made by its drafters in consultation with Russian religious organizations, has become an expression of the ultimate compromise between diverse interests really existing in our society. ( See quotations below for proof that 'Russian religious organisations' were kept in the dark about details of the bill which was prepared behind closed doors.)   'The differentiation introduced in the Bill between religious organizations according to the time of their formation, the number of their followers and their prevalence is a very fair step. Such differentiation exists in the laws of many countries in Europe and the world, with some of them granting a special legal status to one or several confessions - a provision absent from the Bill.' (-- see KNS 'Russia's Proposed Restrictions Unparalleled in Europe', 11 July 1997, and below '15 year registration'.)   Yeltsin said that the bill on religious associations had been prepared 'solely by the Communist faction in the State Duma.' He continued, ' However, I am the guarantor of the constitution,' and added that 'there must be equality between confessions'. Patriarch Aleksi and President Yeltsin are due to meet on Wednesday 6 August during the planned consecration of the Chapel of St Boris and St Gleb in Moscow.(END) ************************************************************** ****** Quotations from various religious leaders opposed to the bill: 1. Baptist human-rights activist VLADIMIR OIVEN said that the parliament's bill would make it harder for independent-minded Baptist and Pentecostal congregations to leave the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, which was founded during the Soviet era and would therefore be eligible for preferential status as a so-called 'religious organisation' rather than as a far less privileged 'religious group'. He acknowledged that many of the independent Baptists prefer in any case to avoid all contact with the state, but the new bill would deny them this option. 2. 'There are no prohibitions against other Orthodox denominations in the new legislation on religious bodies recently passed by the lower house of the Russian parliament,' said VIKTOR KALININ, legal adviser to Orthodox PATRIARCH ALEKSI of Moscow in an interview with an American journalist. FR MIKHAIL MAKEYEV, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Free Church's only parish in Russia's capital, disagreed. 'If this bill becomes law,' he told Keston News Service in a 24 June interview, 'our rental contract will be annulled immediately and we will be kicked out onto the street'. 3. The 15-year rule would also deny the rights of 'legal personalities' to congregations of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which traces its descent to pre-Bolshevik Russian Orthodoxy through bishops and priests who fled abroad after the Russian Civil War. This body is now trying to reestablish itself in its members' ancestral homeland. 4. Roman Catholic Church: ARCHBISHOP KONDRUSIEWICZ pointed out to Keston that Moscow's St Thomas Aquinas College was founded in 1991; St Petersburg's Our Lady Queen of Apostles Seminary in 1993; the Caritas charity programme in 1991; and Russia's two Catholic 'apostolic administrations', his in Moscow and its counterpart in Novosibirsk, in 1991.  By treating church-state relations in 1982 as the norm, the Duma's proposal would de-legitimise every Catholic institution created in Russia since then.   The archbishop also predicted that the proposed new procedures for registering religious organizations would create 'chaos'. The need to provide detailed documentation of the history of the organization's faith would be an impossible burden for a church which is many centuries old.  'What am I supposed to bring with me', he said, 'all the documents of all our church councils?  Who is going to judge them, and how?'  He forecast that decisions by secular bureaucrats would inevitably be 'subjective'.   Provincial authorities in Russia are already labelling Roman Catholic parishes as 'foreign' organisations in violation of Russia's current laws, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz told Keston. Recently, he said, a parish in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia was told that it must provide massive documentation to rebut the presumption that it is a foreign structure, even though every member of the parish is a citizen of the Russian Federation.  He conceded that the parish priest is from Poland, but emphasised that the reason for this is simply that until recently Russia had no seminaries for training indigenous Catholic clergy.  Of the 104 Catholic priests and 112 nuns currently serving in Russia, all but a handful are foreigners. The church's goal is to train a new generation of Russian citizens to fill these vocations, if the educational institutions for doing so are allowed to continue functioning.     Confirming what Keston has learned from other sources, the archbishop said that his office received the text of the new bill only on 11 or 12 June, nearly a week after it was approved by the Duma's religion committee - and then only through informal contacts.  To this day, he said, the Catholics have still not received a copy through any official channel. 5. Individuals within the Russian Orthodox Church The Orthodox Church traditionally practises both baptism and confirmation for infants, but the new legislation would prohibit religious associations from 'attracting' minors without their parents' agreement.  In practice, said Borshchov, Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Religion for the Duma, 'this would mean that an Orthodox priest could not baptise a baby without the written consent of both parents.  There was no such law even in Soviet times'.  He said that he could not understand why the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow had been 'silent' about this provision. 6. For decades 'initsiativniki' Baptists, the most uncompromisingly independent in Russia, have practised their faith in a semi-clandestine manner, shunning nearly all contact with the secular authorities. During the brief period of religious freedom in Russia - a period which according to Baptist PASTOR NIKOLAI POZDNYAKOV is now coming to an end - his congregation has been able to build a relationship with a German-based mission called 'Herald of Peace'.  The congregation itself is not registered, but the German mission is.  The mission also has the status of a 'legal personality' under Russian law, which the indigenous congregation does not. Through the Germans, the Russian Baptists have been able to rent a public auditorium for their twice-weekly worship services.  But if the parliament's proposal becomes law, Pozdnyakov predicts that the German group will lose its registration, 'and we'll be pushed out onto the street'.  He also expects that his group's small journal, Slovo istiny (The Word of Truth) will have to cease publication.     The 'initsiativniki' Baptists broke with the officially registered Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the early 1960s, rejecting the official group's willingness to compromise with the Soviet state on issues such as not teaching religion to children.  The 'initsiativniki' tend to be more conservative in their theology and more suspicious of outsiders. During the Brezhnev years they produced disproportionate numbers of prisoners of conscience - of which Pozdnyakov was one.     If enforced literally, the parliament's bill would threaten the 'initsiativniki' in another way by requiring all existing religious bodies to go through mandatory re-registration before the end of 1999, and all newly formed ones to report their existence to the state even if they do not seek the rights of legal personalities.  Since the 'initsiativniki' refuse on principle to have such contacts with the state, the parliament's bill would create a new legal basis for arrests, fines and the forcible dissolution of congregations which seek nothing but to be left alone. 7. If the Russian Duma's bill to restrict minority religions becomes law, Russia's largest Pentecostal organisation will be crippled.  The Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith in Russia will have to stop publishing its nationwide magazine and its regional newspapers, abandon its television broadcasts, and perhaps close its clergy-training institutes.  More than 95 per cent of its local congregations will be reduced to the status of informal 'religious groups' with no legal right to buy or rent property. That is what the union's president, Bishop VLADIMIR MURZA, predicted when the Keston News Service visited his Moscow office on 30 June.  'We will have to gather for worship in the forests again, just as we did in the 1960s', he said.     Pentecostal Christians were among the most harshly persecuted of Russian believers during the Soviet period.  Not allowed to form a legally recognised nationwide structure of their own, they were pressured to join the Baptist-dominated 'Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists', which even many independent-minded Baptist congregations rejected. 'In 1990 we had only 65 congregations in all of Russia; today we have more than 800', Murza told Keston.  But under the new rules which the Duma now wants to impose, the young age of these churches is precisely what makes them vulnerable.  Neither the Pentecostals' eight-year-old nationwide structure, nor the great majority of its congregations, would meet the new legislation's '15-year rule' which would grant full legal rights only to religious bodies which were legally registered in 1982.  Murza calculated that fewer than 40 of all the congregations in his Union had their own separate registrations from the state that long ago - a time when LEONID BREZHNEV was still in power and when believers were still being arrested for organising prayer groups.   Murza's family has detailed memories of Soviet prison life.  His father spent 10 years as a prisoner of conscience, his father-in-law three: the latter was sentenced for reading one verse of the Bible at work.  Murza himself spent three years in prison and a labour camp in Volgograd; he remembers how the authorities offered him immediate release if he would agree to renounce his Christian faith. 'If this new bill becomes law, it could lead to all of this happening again,' he said.     If the law is enforced literally, the Pentecostal union will become eligible for full-fledged registration once it is 15 years old - i.e., seven years from now.  'But in fact I predict that we will never get registration', Murza told Keston. 'They will always find some pretext to avoid giving it to us - they'll claim that we bother people on the street, or whatever they need to claim.'  He recalled how the authorities used to break up the Pentecostals' prayer meetings in private flats, accusing them of disturbing their neighbours.     Today the average Pentecostal congregation has 100 to 200 active members, with some as large as 900.  'It's impossible for us to meet in flats', said Murza.  About 75 of the 800 local congregations have church buildings of their own - or 'prayer houses', to use the Pentecostals' preferred term - while the others usually rent worship space in buildings such as cinemas. Even under current law, these rental agreements are becoming precarious: more and more often, Pentecostal and other Protestant congregations are being abruptly expelled from public auditoriums in provinces where the authorities are under pressure from Orthodox clergy.  But in Moscow itself, he said, the city authorities have been generally tolerant.     8. Of all the forms of Christianity practised in today's Russia, perhaps the one with the strongest claim to be a 'traditional Russian religion' is the Old Believer faith.  Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were all introduced to Russia by foreigners - but the Old Believer tradition is the result of a purely indigenous Russian reaction against liturgical changes decreed by the cosmopolitan PATRIARCH NIKON in the 17th century. In conversations with clerics and lay leaders of the Old Believer Metropolia of Moscow and All Russia headed by METROPOLITAN ALIMPI sources which asked to remain nameless asserted that Article 8 would have the practical effect of depriving their church of 'all-Russian' status and recognising it only as a 'regional' religious organisation.  They say that the church currently has parishes in only 43 provinces of the Russian Federation, not enough to meet Article 8's requirements.  If the bill becomes law, a merely 'regional' religious body would not have a clear right to establish new parishes in provinces where it is not already present.     Also offensive to the Old Believers is the parliament's rejection of their appeals to include in the bill a provision requiring that the secular authorities try to establish which specific confessions originally owned specific items of church property before transferring such items to religious organisations. Instead, Articles 21 and 22 of the current bill would allow the Moscow Patriarchate to continue what the Old Believers call the 'vicious practice' of seizing items such as icons and bells known to be of Old Believer provenance.  (see KNS 'Parliament's Religion Bill Alarms Old Believers', 15 July 1997 for examples) ************************************************************* While the international press has caught on to the bill's veto, their articles focus on the US Senate's bill to halt up to $200 million of aid to Russia if Yeltsin signed the bill, and on the Pope's letter. Several other groups wrote him as well, including Russian nationals. Several religious confessions (besides the Russian Orthodox Free Church, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, 'initsiativniki' Baptists and Old Believers mentioned above) have stated that they do not agree with the provisions of the proposed law. ANDREI LOGINOV, presidential staff member and head of the Directorate for Cooperation with Political Parties and Social Organisations, told Keston that the 'consensus' behind the new legislation includes leaders of 'traditional religions' which he said 'represent 95 per cent of all Russians'.  Among those religions, he said, are the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists and Baptists. They disagree. 1. The Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Jewish Community of Moscow, both of which were represented at the informal meeting on 2 June which helped draft a preliminary version of the measure which the Duma's religion committee passed on 6 June.  They subsequently issued statements emphasising that the committee, abruptly discarding the practice previously observed by the committee's vice-chairman VALERI BORSHCHOV, failed to distribute the 6 June text to religious leaders, and to seek their comments on it, before voting on it behind closed doors. 2-4. Protestant legal scholar, ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV reported that the Baptist Union, the Pentecostal Union and the Adventists specifically protested that they were not informed of the new legislation. In effect it appears the representatives of more than 4,000 local congregations across Russia were simply ignored. 5. Roman Catholic Church. Confirming what Keston has learned from other sources, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said that his office in Moscow received the text of the new bill only on 11 or 12 June, nearly a week after it was approved by the Duma's religion committee - and then only through informal contacts.  To this day, he said, the Catholics have still not received a copy through any official channel and were not represented at the 26 May committee of religion meeting. 6. Pentecostals: Bishop Vladimir Murza vigorously disputed the claim that the new legislation was thoroughly reviewed and discussed by leaders of all Russia's major religious confessions. The Pentecostal bishop is a member of the Duma's informal 'working group' of representatives from various confessions which has not met once since December 1996.  He also said that at a 29 May meeting of the Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations in President Yeltsin's administration, Communist deputy VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV did not distribute any copies of proposed legislation and discussed the topic only in general terms - 'for maybe seven or eight minutes'.       Murza recalled that Zorkaltsev did say something about a 15-year rule, but gave little detail.  To the religious leaders' requests for copies of the bill, the deputy gave a reassuring but vague answer to the effect that they would indeed get copies at some point.  Nevertheless, Murza told Keston, 'To this day I still have not received a copy of the bill  from any official source - I have it only because I got it through other channels.'  He learned of the bill's exact contents only on 9 June, three days after it was approved by Zorkaltsev's committee in a closed-door session. ************************************************************** 15 year registration: 1. Through the provisions which would condition the current rights of a religious body on its status 15 years ago and 50 years ago, FR GLEB YAKUNIN said, today's Russia would be accepting as normative the times when there was 'full police control of religion' under officials such as STALIN'S secret-police chief LAVRENTI BERIA. 2. The Roman Catholic Church's centralised hierarchical structure would not be recognised as the authority over its members within Russia. Protestant legal scholar VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY emphasised that the bill would mandate 'state interference in the internal hierarchal structures' of churches.  By allowing citizens to form only local rather than national religious bodies and by confining the activities of these bodies within territorial limits to be set by the state, he said, the legislation would violate the provisions of Russia's Civic Code on legal personalities and of the Constitution on freedom of association.     3. When a Keston representative discussed the bill with a high- ranking official in PRESIDENT YELTSIN'S administration on 25 June, the official expressed surprise on hearing that the proposal's '15-year rule' would deny full legal rights not only to religious bodies which did not exist in 1982, but also to churches which did exist then but were not formally registered by the Soviet authorities. Such churches include all the dissident Orthodox bodies which refused to compromise with what was then a totalitarian atheist state - in other words, all Russian Orthodox groups other than the Moscow Patriarchate. These include both the jurisdiction of Fr Mikhail Makeyev's, priest in the only Russian Orthodox Free Church parish in Moscow, and the quasi-underground True Orthodox Church. ************************************************************** WHO ELSE PROTESTED AGAINST THE LAW? 1. The Sakharov Centre distributed an open letter to President Yeltsin calling the controversy over the parliament's bill 'a turning point for the development of the democratic process in Russia'.  The 7 July letter was signed by Borshchov and five other human-rights activists, including: the recently hospitalised Duma deputy SERGEI KOVALYOV, who led Russian opponents of the Kremlin's war on Chechnya; LARISA BOGORAZ, widow of the dissident writer YURI DANIEL; LYUDMILA ALEKSEEVA, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and LEV PONOMARYOV, head of Moscow's Inter-regional Human-Rights Centre. 2. The European Union.  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. (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 is the immediate past president, and Britain is to be the 1998 president.)     3. The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews has vigorously condemned the Russian Duma's proposed restrictions on minority confessions. In a statement issued jointly in Moscow with several other human-rights groups including Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, the Chicago-based international Jewish-rights group said that the Duma's bill is in fundamental conflict with the principles of a free society.       Emigre Jewish activist LEONID STONOV, visiting Moscow from the Union of Council's Chicago headquarters, told Keston News Service in a 2 July telephone interview that the bill is especially dangerous to adherents of Reform Judaism and other non-mainstream versions of the faith.  If it becomes law, he said, these groups will be dependent for nearly all their legal rights on the centralised Jewish structures which were legally registered during the Soviet period. 4. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, the largest U.S.-based international human-rights organisation. The group's appeal to Yeltsin, signed by executive director HOLLY CARTNER, called special attention to a crucial amendment which was quietly slipped into the text of the bill between its 18 June 'second reading' and 23 June 'third reading' in the lower house of parliament, and never debated on the floor of either house.  The earlier version would have granted to so-called 'religious groups' - the less privileged of the two new categories of religious association created by the bill - the right to engage in charitable activities and 'other activities' even though these groups would not have the status of 'legal personalities' under Russian law.  But the final version omitted that phrase, giving 'religious groups' only the right to conduct 'worship services, religious ceremonies and rituals'.  The Human Rights Watch letter said that the specific omission of the phrase 'other rights' before final approval 'indicates the clearly expressed intent of the State Duma to limit the activities of religious groups to the performance of worship services, religious ceremonies and rituals'.   Human Rights Watch suggested that the differences between the rights of 'religious groups' and of 'religious organisations' which would be established by the parliament's bill contradict the European Convention on Human Rights - particularly that document's Article 14 on religious discrimination and Article 9 on limits on the free expression of religious convictions.   5. President Yeltsin. The 1996 bill on religion, 'Amendments and Additions to the Law on Freedom of Religion', which passed its first reading in the Duma July 1996 and became the bill on religion which passed its 'second' and 'third' readings in the Duma and finally the Federation Council this summer, included a section on 'foreign religious organisations' which was far less restrictive than that of the 1997 bill: for example, it did not require that foreign churches or missionaries may operate in Russia only as the guests of Russian religious bodies.  But the Yeltsin administration found even this milder version to be unconstitutional.  Challenging the proposed section's basic premise, the president's statement of September 1996 expressed 'doubt that a special legal act is necessary to regulate the opening in Russia of representative bodies of religious organisations.   Representative bodies of various foreign organisations are now being opened in Russia: commercial, non-commercial, social and so on.  We suggest that a single legal act regulating the opening of representative bodies of legal personalities would be appropriate.  In our view, this question should be regulated by federal law.  Moreover, the possible existence of a special system, confirmed by an act of the Russian government, for the opening of representative bodies of foreign religious organisations creates doubts about the constitutional principle of the equality of religious associations as secured by Article 14 of the Russian Constitution.'     The president's September 1996 statement went on to criticise that year's proposal for diverging from the principles of Russia's civic code for registering organisations.  It insisted that the bill be 'brought into conformity with the Civic Code of the Russian Federation, insofar as state registration should be carried out above all in accordance with this Code'.  The 1997 bill, with provisions such as its controversial '15-year rule' denying the rights of a legal personality to newly formed or newly registered religious bodies, diverges even further from the Civic Code.   The president's 1996 statement to the legislators also insisted that the July 1996 bill violated the constitution by requiring that persons wishing to register a new religious organisation must provide proof of citizenship.  This requirement, said the president's message, contradicted the guarantee in Article 28 of the constitution of religious freedom to 'everyone', not just to citizens.  Instead, said the message, it should be 'enough that a person wishing to register a religious organisation is legally present on the territory of the Russian Federation'.  The 1997 bill, of course, would concede even fewer rights to foreigners than the 1996 bill.   6. Two committees of the Federation Council recommended against immediate approval of the Duma's new bill on religion, Keston News Service learned from a source in the upper house, on 2 July. The Committee on Constitutional Legislation recommended that the upper house simply reject the Duma's proposal. The Committee on Science and Culture took the position that the upper house should study the proposed bill more deeply and take it up for consideration in its next session, which will probably be in October. MORE NEWS: Recent declaration (quoted in the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda) by MAJOR GENERAL CHERKASOV, the Ministry of Defence official responsible for cooperation with religious organisations, that his colleagues 'must follow a simple rule: contacts of all confessions with the army in Moscow are to be carried out only through the Moscow Patriarchate'.  (END)