RUSSIA: Belgorod's New Anti-Missionary Law.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 31 May 2001

On 25 January the regional duma (parliament) of Belgorod region, approximately 450 miles south of Moscow, almost unanimously passed a local law sharply restricting missionary activity. Supported by the local Orthodox bishop, the governor and other key officials, the new law has encountered vocal opposition from Belgorod's Protestants, some of whom have already had it applied against them. Keston News Service has learnt that a Pentecostal church was denied permission for public events in the city centre in April as an official claimed the possible presence of children without written permission of their parents meant the events would violate the law, although the Orthodox had no problems holding public Easter celebrations with children present.

Missionary activity, as defined by the three-page law, `aims directly or indirectly to disseminate doctrines and religious practices: among those of another faith or nonbelievers' (Article 2, Part 1). Such activity is permitted only in `cult buildings and on their related territory,' in living accommodation with the permission of the inhabitants, and in other locations should these `accord with the requirements for holding mass spectator events' and if the activity is conducted in compliance with the regulations for holding public gatherings, meetings, marches and demonstrations (Article 3, Part 2).

Unlike many similar local laws in Russia, `On Missionary Activity on the Territory of Belgorod Region' is not just confined to foreign citizens, although they are specifically prohibited from conducting missionary activity if they have come to Belgorod for a different reason (Article 3, Part 7). Residents of other Russian regions intending to carry out missionary activity in Belgorod must also submit to the local authorities a document confirming their affiliation to a particular religious organisation, a copy of their invitation to the region, an itinerary of their stay, and proof of local registration (Article 3, Part 6). Any representative of a religious organisation wishing to conduct missionary activity among minors must obtain the written permission of their parents or guardians (Article 3, Part 4). Those violating the law face a fine of between 50 and 100 times the minimum wage (Article 4).

Although local deputies also have the right to propose legislation, the law was put before Belgorod's duma by the region's head of administration (governor), Yevgeny Savchenko. As a result, local Communist Party leader Sergei Demchenko told Keston on 15 May, he and all but two or three deputies felt pressurised into voting in favour of it, although, said Demchenko, his sympathies lay with the local Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses who had complained to him that their rights were being violated.

Also speaking to Keston on 15 May, local plenipotentiary for religious affairs Aleksei Glushchenko was unable to explain why the law had been presented by Savchenko personally rather than an ordinary duma member. While many of Keston's interviewees referred to the warm relationship between Savchenko and Bishop Ioann (Popov) of Belgorod and Stary Oskol, however, Glushchenko insisted that the local Orthodox diocese `bore no relation to the drafting of the law'.

In an interview with Keston on 16 May, Bishop Ioann, who – ironically - heads the Moscow Patriarchate's missionary department, argued that Belgorod's geopolitical particularities made the law's restrictions on missionary activity much needed. The region's proximity to the large Ukrainian city of Kharkov resulted in an influx of destructive influences from across the border, he explained: specifically, totalitarian sects such as the White Brotherhood and numerous missionaries accompanying humanitarian aid from the United States. Just as a north-south Catholic-Buddhist divide in China has resulted in thousands of Chinese establishing a corridor on Russian territory, argued Bishop Ioann, so the stability of the religious situation in Belgorod could be upset by an east-west Orthodox-Catholic division of Ukraine. `The law plays a preservatory role,' he assured Keston.

Those against whom Bishop Ioann claims the law is directed are nowhere mentioned in its text. Nevertheless, the bishop expressed astonishment that Belgorod's Protestants should interpret it as an impingement upon their rights. Pastor of Word of Truth Pentecostal Church Andrei Kuznetsov has reason to receive it as such, however, since the law has already been applied against his church.

Striving to conform to the regulations for holding public gatherings, meetings, marches and demonstrations as specified by the new law, Kuznetsov wrote to Belgorod mayor Georgi Golikov on 10 April informing him of his church's intention to hold a series of missionary events, including preaching, a musical concert and distribution of free literature, on a square in the city centre on 21 and 22 of that month. (The church has had no place to meet other than in private flats since August 2000, Kuznetsov explained to Keston, when the director of the cinema which they had been renting terminated his agreement with the church after being warned by the local administration not to lease his premises to `sectarians'.) On 18 April a representative of the municipal administration, S. Markovskaya, wrote to Kuznetsov in reply that `it is not possible to designate an open area on the territory of the city where all norms of the law on missionary activity would be ensured during missionary events, since holding such events would inevitably involve the participation of minors without the written permission of their parents'. The church was forced to cancel its plans.

On 14 May Kuznetsov showed Keston photographs featuring Orthodox clergy alongside young children at Belgorod's city centre Easter celebrations published in local newspaper `Belgorodskiye Izvestiya'. `I bet they don't have the written permission of those children's parents,' he indignantly remarked. `The law affects us but not the Orthodox Church.' (END)