RUSSIA: Muslims First For Mandatory Liquidation

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 24 January 2001

More than three dozen Muslim communities are set to be the first victims of the mandatory liquidation by the courts ordered by then acting president Vladimir Putin last March for religious organisations that failed to re-register with the justice authorities by the deadline of 31 December of last year (see KNS 30 March 2000). In the first known cases since the expiry of the deadline, the justice authorities in the North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria have initiated suits in court to liquidate 38 local religious organisations that failed to gain re-registration. Of the 38 religious organisations whose cases have been presented to district courts in the republic, 37 are Muslim, while the 38th is a Jehovah's Witness community.

`Lawsuits for the liquidation of 38 organisations have been brought in the courts of the districts concerned,' Yelena Uzbiyeva, the official supervising the registration of religious organisations at the Kabardino-Balkaria Ministry of Justice, told Keston News Service from Nalchik on 15 January. `Of these, 37 are Muslim communities which failed to send in their re-registration documents.'

She confirmed that a lawsuit has also been initiated for the liquidation of a Jehovah's Witness community in the town of Prokhladny. Artur Leontyev, a lawyer from the Jehovah's Witnesses' Administrative Centre in St Petersburg, told Keston on 22 January that the court hearing will be held in Prokhladny on 30 January. It is not yet known when the hearings to liquidate the 37 Muslim communities will take place.

Once liquidated by the courts, these religious groups will lose their legal personality status, depriving them of the right to publish, import or distribute literature, invite foreign citizens, form rental agreements or conduct charitable activity. According to the 1997 Russian law on religion, they will be reduced to the status of a 'religious group', whose only rights are to worship on premises provided by its own members and to teach its own followers.

A total of 122 religious organisations registered in Kabardino-Balkaria before the controversial 1997 federal religion law came into force were subject to re-registration. Uzbiyeva reported that some organisations, instead of being re-registered, were registered as newly-founded, including five Korean Presbyterian churches, although she failed to explain why.

Uzbiyeva told Keston on 15 January that the republic now had 172 registered religious organisations. Most were Muslim, the remainder being 18 Orthodox parishes, 7 Adventist organisations, 7 Baptist organisations, 5 Presbyterian churches, 2 Roman Catholic parishes, one Molokan organisation, one Jewish community and one Grace Church. As the Commission on Religious Associations of the Kabardino-Balkar government had predicted, by the beginning of the year all the religious organisations that had sent in the required documents had been re-registered, apart from the Jehovah's Witnesses (see KNS 3 November 2000).

The 37 Muslim communities due for liquidation apparently failed to lodge their re-registration papers in time because of the complexity of the information demanded. As Mufti Shafig Psikhachev, head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, had explained to Uzbiyeva, these were, in her own words, communities from villages where only old men remained. The Spiritual Administration of Muslims told Keston on 22 January that around 80 of its communities had succeeded in obtaining re-registration by 31 December. On 24 October, Mufti Psikhachev told Keston that re-registration of Muslim organisations had already been delayed by two to three months, blaming the fact that, in order to register, each Muslim community had to provide an account of its activities and `we found this difficult'.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to gain re-registration for any of their communities in Kabardino-Balkaria, although so far only the Prokhladny community faces court-ordered liquidation. 'The question of the re-registration of two other communities of the Jehovah's Witnesses is being considered,' Uzbiyeva declared, `and a commission is at work on it.'

On 15 January, Khazmurat Yeziev, head of the Kabardino-Balkar government's Commission for Religious Associations, declared again to Keston that the Jehovah's Witnesses would not be re-registered as `they go from door to door and propagandise' which, he claimed, in a republic with a mainly Muslim population, constituted a threat to their lives. As further justification of the refusal, Yeziev added that they `don't have the 15-year term of existence'.

However, according to the 1997 federal religion law, and also according to Kabardino-Balkaria's local religion law, an organisation requesting re-registration does not need corroboration of its 15-year term of existence in the given territory if it is part of a centralised religious organisation - as all congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian Federation are.

On 23 June 1999, the Parliamentary Council of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic passed a law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, which is much more restrictive than the 1997 federal law on the question of registration of religious organisations. However, Yeziev told Keston on 15 January that at the end of last year the republic suspended this local law and is now operating according to the federal law. (END)