RUSSIA: Russian Orthodox Church Abroad's Uphill Struggle for Registration.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 17 April 2001

According to the Russian Ministry of Justice’s recent figures, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) has 37 re-registered parishes within the Russian Federation. Since two of the church’s clergy estimate the total number of its parishes in Russia to be approximately 100, however, it appears that almost two-thirds are operating without full legal rights. The ROCA has also managed to register only one of its three dioceses in Russia, since, even if re-registered, few of its parishes can claim the 15 years necessary to form the basis of a centralised religious organisation. Although agreeing that registration and property issues (see separate article) are the ROCA’s main problems in Russia, however, Bishop Yeftikhi (Kurochkin) of Ishim and Siberia does not believe that these are caused by the 1997 law on religion, but by what he calls the ‘human factor’ within the church.

On 10 April Tatyana Basova of the Kursk department of justice (350 miles south of Moscow) told Keston that two ROCA parishes are among those in the region facing liquidation (See KNS 21 December 2000). In an interview with Keston in Moscow in January, Fr Vladimir Tsukanov of the Parish of the Nativity of the Virgin in Kursk explained to Keston that ROCA parishes in Kursk, Belgorod and Voronezh come under the jurisdiction of Bishop Lazar (Zhurbenko) of Odessa. As a result, said Fr Tsukanov, the diocese’s documents for parish registration ‘are suitable for Ukraine, but not for us, so re-registration lost its point.’ For the same reason, he added, ‘our diocese can’t exist’ - since the Russian parishes within the diocese have not existed for 15 years, ‘we don’t have the three local organisations necessary to register a diocese, and we can’t register new parishes without one – it’s a vicious circle.’

Fr Tsukanov told Keston that St Petersburg falls within the jurisdiction of the ROCA’s only registered diocese in Russia, Ishim and Siberia. Speaking to Keston by telephone from St Petersburg on 10 March, however, Fr Valentin Solomakha told Keston that his parish of St John the Theologian, as well as that of the New Martyr Elizabeth led by Fr Vladimir Savitsky, are not registered in the city. ‘It is not possible to register,’ Fr Solomakha explained. ‘We submitted the documentation, and were refused on various pretexts. Then we were given the friendly advice by an official in the St Petersburg department of justice that it was pointless trying to register because they [the department] don’t decide - there is telephone law [unwritten decrees from higher officials].’

Despite repeated attempts, Keston has been unable to obtain a response from the relevant department within the St Petersburg department of justice.

In an interview with Keston on 4 April, Bishop Yeftikhi told Keston that ‘15 or 20’ of Ishim diocese’s 40 parishes are registered: ‘Every time we need to register, we register.’ The main reason why the re-registration situation was better in Siberia, in his view, was because in his diocese ‘priests always serve where they were born – we know the people and our parishioners know each other, whereas in other dioceses they are sent to people they don’t know, so it is easy to infiltrate parishes with provocateurs, who try to prevent our activity by getting us to argue with the authorities.’

In Bishop Yeftikhi’s view, it is this lack of accord among church members which has prevented the ROCA from creating a solid structure within Russia during the past decade, and not the action of the authorities or the 1997 law. ‘It is not true that the law oppresses us,’ he told Keston. ‘When I read it, I understood that with desire and effort we could build a church structure which could resist state power – especially as a privileged traditional confession. At the Ministry of Justice they said, “Why are you worried? You are Orthodox”.’However, Bishop Yeftikhi also admitted that the ROCA has encountered obstacles when trying to register, which, in his view, ‘unfortunately’ emanate from the Moscow Patriarchate. Several years ago, he told Keston, a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate alleged to his local administration that the ROCA was financed by the CIA, of which Bishop Yeftikhi was said to be an agent. Although a subsequent FSB investigation at the federal level refuted these allegations, he said, the affair had nevertheless played a great role in raising suspicion within registration departments. On an official level, he maintained, this always took the form of petty fault-finding with registration documents: ‘Officials do this as insurance against being accused of collaborating with those who are undesirable to the Moscow Patriarchate.’

On 28 February Fr Sergi Kiselyov of the Parish of the Holy Royal Martyrs in Moscow told Keston that a further problem is posed by the fact that the ROCA has its centre abroad. For example, he explained, Bishop Mikhail of Toronto was unable to sign papers in an official capacity when in Russia during 2000. According to one ROCA parish priest, Bishop Mikhail formally tried to register the ROCA’s New York synod in Russia two years ago at the federal level, ‘but at the Ministry of Justice they called us an “American sect” and said we were an émigré church bearing no relation to Russia.’

Speaking to Keston on 11 April, Viktor Korolyov, who is in charge of registration of religious organisations at Russia’s Ministry of Justice, denied that Bishop Mikhail had tried to register the New York synod in Moscow. ‘What would they want to do that for? It is abroad, let them register it in the honourable United States of America.’ However, he said, the church had tried to re-register a second diocese covering Moscow city and region, but that this had failed because ‘they couldn’t present their documents properly – in accordance with the law.’ This diocese, he told Keston, now faced liquidation.

On 10 April Aleksandr Shapavalov, who is in charge of religious affairs in Kursk oblast, commented to Keston that ‘it is possible to exist without registration – and it seems that they [the ROCA parishes in Kursk] have decided to go that route.’ Bishop Yeftikhi, however, related to Keston some of the reasons why the ROCA wants legal personality status for its parishes. ‘When we employ people in a parish, we want to give them a stable status – for that we need registration. Priests need pensions and health insurance – and for that we also need legal personality status.’ (END)