Friday 15 October 1999

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO HEAR CHALLENGES TO THE 1997 LAW ON RELIGION by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service Two challenges to the 1997 Russian law on religion relating to the Glorification ('Proslavleniye') Pentecostal Church in the south-western Siberian republic of Khakassia and the Jehovah's Witnesses community in the city of Yaroslavl will be heard by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation on 21 October. A spokesman at the office of VALERY ZORKIN, the judge dealing with the case, told Keston that the claims 'concern the nonconstitutional nature of Article 27 Point 3.' The first claim will be presented by lawyer and director of the Slavic Justice Centre ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV and lawyer GALINA KRYLOVA, the second by lawyer ARTUR LEONTYEV. According to Keston's sources, the court's decision is likely to leave intact the 1997 law's controversial distinction between so-called 'religious organisations' and so-called 'religious groups', under which the latter have sharply limited rights.  Lawyer Pchelintsev's main aim is to protect not independent or unregistered congregations, but those which join 'centralised religious organisations' such as the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. Article 27 Point 3 severely limits the rights of religious organisations which 'do not possess a document proving their existence on the corresponding territory over the course of at least 15 years', that is, before the advent of perestroika. The claims from the two religious organisations cited, both of whom were refused registration under this point, were formally submitted over a year ago, since which time both organisations have reregistered successfully having joined centralised religious organisations. According to SERGEI VASILYEV at the Jehovah's Witnesses' Administrative Centre in St Petersburg, 'we submitted our complaint about Article 27 Point 3 as our community in Yaroslavl was refused registration under it. The issue has already been resolved, but the principle is still important as the article violates the rights of believers. For many "new" organisations it is a serious restriction. We believe that the law should either be radically amended or repealed altogether. We are currently looking at Article 14 [which concerns grounds for liquidating a religious organisation or banning its activities]. The drawn-out court case against our Moscow community is due to this article - its vagueness is being made use of. If  instances arise in which Article 14  is applied, we will question its existence. If articles thus begin to give way here and there, maybe the whole law will collapse.' However, the lawyers are more pessimistic. According to Artur Leontyev, 'the Constitutional Court has such restricted powers - it is a strange organ for the resolution of political issues. In order to challenge a law within it the law in question has to have been applied by a law enforcement agency, for example, the public prosecutor or a department of the Ministry of Justice. But surely one should not have to wait for the guillotine to fall before raising an objection. That destroys the whole point. The court's function should be to prove the unlawful nature of the law.' There are also concerns about information from within the court.  According to one informed source, 'the judge's intention is to reject the challenges, citing that the organisations concerned have already reregistered and that the given article does not refer to organisations within centralised religious organisations. This can be deduced from inquiries made by the judge, from which it is clear what scheme he has chosen.' This view is also supported by lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev. On 12 October he told Keston: 'I think the court will reject the claims. However, they must give their grounds for this decision and indicate that Article 27 Point 3 does not extend to religious organisations belonging to centralised ones. Our main aim is not to strike down Point 3, but to show that those entering centralised religious organisations do not need the 15-year period.' It would also suit the lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses if the judge were to give such an explanation, 'as our community in Yaroslavl, like all Jehovah's Witnesses communities, is part of a centralised organisation. Our maximum aim is to strike down this point in the law, our supermaximum aim would be to strike down all unconstitutional articles within it.' Lawyer Galina Krylova is also pessimistic about her chances, as in her view the majority of religious organisations have already resolved their problems in connection with the law. She has higher hopes for a challenge she has submitted for the Russian branch of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) which was acknowledged on 30 August 1999. Keston has already reported how, on the basis of several points in the 1997 law on religion, registration was refused this well-known Roman Catholic monastic order.  (See KNS 20 April 1999, 'Russian Ministry of Justice Rejects Jesuits' Bid for Registration' ) This is a far more weighty claim, and, according to Krylova, 'there is no way that it will be heard along with the other two as the court would then have to review the whole essence of the law.' A spokesman at the press office attached to the Constitutional Court told Keston: 'These two claims were combined as they were both submitted some time ago and have undergone a three-month provisional review. If a similar claim were to have been submitted more recently, it would not have been included, as there is an official procedure which has to be followed.'  LEV LEVINSON, assistant to Duma deputy VALERI BORSHCHEV, believes that the Jesuits' challenge 'will be heard around two years from now. According to our latest information it will be considered separately, the official reason being that it was submitted much later than the other two. There is a rule that, having looked at a law once, the Constitutional Court cannot consider it again soon afterwards, although the Jesuits' challenge has a more solid basis, as it is obvious that they will never join a centralised organisation.' (END) All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright: (c) Keston Institute 1999 Unauthorized reproduction and dissemination of KNS is illegal and immoral. Subscription payments directly help religious freedom as we cannot provide this material unless we have income. 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