RUSSIA: Attempt to Toughen 1997 Law on Religion.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 15 March 2001

A draft law proposed by the parliament of Voronezh region and considered by the state Duma's Committee on Social and Religious Organisations (CSRO) in late February would introduce additional grounds for liquidating religious organisations into Article 14 of the 1997 law on religion. According to aide to Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyov, Lev Levinson, who spoke to Keston News Service on 7 March, it would also 'partially legalise traditional religions in state schools' by introducing into Article 4 a section of the law's preamble, which currently does not have legal force. Although those recently questioned by Keston about the bill were doubtful that it would be adopted, the very attempt to amend the law is, according to Levinson, 'indicative' - in Voronezh, it transpires, of dissatisfaction with non-implementation of the existing law.

Among the grounds for liquidating a religious organisation proposed by the Voronezh bill are: 'the anonymous dissemination of religious doctrines in any form', 'pestering citizens in public places: on transport, at bus stops, stations, places of recreation and the penetration of living accommodation with the aim of propagandising religious doctrines and disseminating religious literature' and 'charitable activity and care of socially defenceless sectors of the population with the aim of drawing them into a religious organisation'.

The bill additionally proposes that recognition of 'the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia, and to the establishment and development of Russia's spirituality and culture, respecting Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions' be added to the provision in Article 4 ensuring 'the secular character' of state education.

Lev Levinson was unsure whether the CSRO had rejected the bill outright or merely suggested that it be formulated differently. Although he was doubtful that it would get past the committee stage, he said, 'there is always the chance that it will be changed to a softer version.'

On 13 March CSRO deputy chairman Aleksandr Chuyev maintained that the CSRO had already rejected the Voronezh bill. 'The committee was opposed to its being put before parliament, and to any restrictions', he told Keston. Asked whether the bill might nevertheless be considered in a different form, Chuyev was equally doubtful, since 'it needed a completely different conceptual system.'

Why has the Voronezh parliament proposed such amendments? Speaking to Keston by telephone from Voronezh on 13 March, press secretary of the region's Committee for the Affairs of Social and Religious Organisations, Lidiya Kuznetsova, explained that members of the Church of the Last Testament headed by Vissarion had induced people in Voronezh to leave their families, renounce their property and move to Krasnoyarsk: 'The bill is in response to the tears of those families who have suffered.' After receiving letters from the affected families, she said, the Permanent Commission for Links with the Public and Regulations ('Reglament') attached to the Voronezh regional parliament held a round table to discuss the problem, following which the bill was drafted and approved in a session of the regional parliament.

Having sent the bill to Moscow, said Kuznetsova, 'we are waiting for the Duma religion committee to pay attention.' She did not appear to be particularly confident about the bill's chances, however: 'If it doesn't pass then it doesn't pass, but we had to do something.'

According to Kuznetsova, the bill is intended 'to create the possibility to stop or close down or remove registration' from groups such as Vissarion's. On her own admission, however, the Church of the Last Testament is not registered in Voronezh. How, asked Keston, would the bill then affect the situation? 'Who let Vissarion have 200 hectares in Krasnoyarsk? Our aim is to get Moscow to force the local authorities in Krasnoyarsk to do something.'

Kuznetsova clearly believes the current Russian law on religion to be ineffectual: 'It is not enough.' Keston then countered that Article 14 already includes grounds for liquidating religious organisations as broad as 'the infringement of the person, the rights and freedom of a citizen' and asked Kuznetsova why she thought these were not being made use of. 'Maybe it is of benefit to someone,' she suggested. 'The original draft was made much milder after Clinton rang Yeltsin - we live according to America's instructions.'

Levinson agrees that the fact that religious organisations deemed destructive by proponents of the 1997 law - such as the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses - for the most part function legally in Russia today is due to western pressure: 'Article 14 does contain dangerous formulations but there needs to be a political will from above for it to be enacted. It is being kept in check from above - they don't want to upset the West.' Asked why the existing law was not being used against allegedly dangerous religious groups, Aleksandr Chuyev made a further suggestion: 'Religious organisations have money and they know how to work with government officials. And government officials encourage them.' (END)