RUSSIA: Belgorod Region Plans to Restrict Missionaries

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 11 December 2000

The parliament in Belgorod region, in southern Russia on the border with Ukraine, is well on its way to adopting a bill that would restrict missionary activity by local religious groups and all but ban it by foreigners. On 30 November deputies approved the first reading of a bill `On missionary and preaching activity on the territory of Belgorod' despite the conclusion by the parliament's legal department that parts of the bill contradict federal law. The legal department identified sections contradicting Russia's controversial 1997 religion law by restricting the right to freedom of conscience of foreign citizens legally resident in the country. Keston News Service tried to discuss the bill with members of the Belgorod parliament and administration, but no parliamentarian or official was prepared to comment.

A number of Russia's regions have adopted restrictive religious laws, many of which violate federal law and the Russian constitution (see KNS 19 September 2000). Belgorod has had its own law - `On the missionary activity of religious organisations and preachers in the Belgorod region' - since November 1996.

In an explanatory note to the new bill, the head of the department for links with society, Aleksandr Khodeyev, who is based in the regional administration, claims there is a `need' to adopt a law on religion corresponding to `current realities'. `The religious situation has changed and representatives from religions not native to Russia and the Belgorod region have become active,' he declared. `Missionary and preaching activity - the most important aspect of the work of any religious organisation - was not regulated by the new Federal Law on freedom of conscience adopted on 26 September 1997. It became necessary therefore to adopt the same procedures regulating the conduct of missionary and preaching activity in the Belgorod region for all religious groups.'

The new bill would introduce tight restrictions on missionary and preaching activity. Article 3 point 2 states that missionary activity may be conducted in `cult buildings', in places of residence only with the permission of residents, and in other places only `in accordance with the regulations established for the holding of public meetings and demonstrations' - in other words, only with the agreement of the local administration. Point 6 lists the documentation the regional authorities would demand from those arriving in the region to conduct missionary and preaching activity, including the passport details of all individuals involved, a declaration of the aim and duration of the visit and a copy of the invitation from a religious group in the region (if such an invitation has been issued). Details must be provided of the planned itinerary, as well as proof of registration at the place of residence.

Article 3 point 7 states that `foreign citizens arriving in the region for tourist, business or purposes other than the conduct of missionary activity, as stated in their entry visas, do not have the right to engage in missionary or preaching activity'. Point 8 classifies `the placing of advertisements of a religious nature, or the distribution of information about religious activities' as missionary activity.

Deputy director of the legal department at the Belgorod regional parliament O. Kremneva noted in her conclusion of 4 November that Article 3 point 7 of the bill contravenes Article 3 of the federal religion law. She cites Article 28 point 3 of the Russian Constitution, which states that `restriction of the rights of foreign citizens freely to choose, profess and disseminate religious or other views and to act in accordance with these may only be established by Federal Law and international agreement'.

Kremneva continued: `The Federal Law does not make the right to conduct missionary and preaching activity dependent on the stated aim of a foreign citizen's entry to the country, and upholds the rights of foreign citizens and those holding no citizenship who are legally resident in the Russian Federation to freedom of conscience and belief equal with the rights enjoyed by citizens of the Russian Federation. Only the Federal Law can be applied if there has been an infringement of legislation on freedom of conscience. Thus even if a person has offended under the terms of Article 3 point 7 of the draft regional law they cannot be charged for breaking the federal law.'

Despite the criticism from the parliament's own legal department and the professed demand of Russian president Vladimir Putin that regional laws must conform with national laws and the constitution, deputies seem determined to adopt the bill. (END)