RUSSIA: Impact of Belgorod's Anti-Missionary Law.

by Aleksandr Schipkov, Keston News Service, 31 May 2001

In the month following their 16 February letter protesting at the unconstitutionality of Belgorod's new missionary law addressed foremost to the head of the Department for Relations with Religious Organisations Attached to the Presidential Administration, local Protestant representatives were invited to individual discussions with an officer of the region's Federal Security Service, the FSB (former KGB). `He wanted to find out what had upset us,' pastor of New Life Pentecostal Church Vladimir Rybant told Keston News Service in Belgorod on 14 May.

Interviewed on 16 May, head of Belgorod FSB, Viktor Grebenyuk, confirmed that such meetings had taken place and explained that although FSB officers had long since `ceased to manage (`kurirovat') the religious sphere', they were nevertheless obliged by law to engage in `the prevention of extremism'. Since he had not seen any discussion of the bill on missionary activity in the local press before it went before the regional parliament, said Grebenyuk, he had first been alerted to it by head of Belgorod's department of justice, Vladimir Karnaukhov.

On 15 May Belgorod's department of justice held a full-day open meeting almost entirely dedicated to discussion of implementation of the federal law on religion and the introduction of the regional law on missionary activity. Since Bishop Ioann (Popov) of Belgorod and Stary Oskol had a prior engagement in Moscow, and - for reasons which remain unclear - no diocesan representative attended, the meeting was dominated by local Protestants, who were given an extensive opportunity to air their grievances openly and directly.

While Adventist pastor Pavel Dmitrenko stressed that his church was `law-abiding - we pray for the unity of Russia,' and Baptist pastor Aleksandr Rebrilov lamented that he had been `placed outside the law' against his will by the new missionary regulations, the Protestants made clear that they did not intend to remain passive in the face of the local law. Adventist pastor Aleksandr Kozhoka exclaimed, `I don't need [Bishop] Ioann's blessing to save people!', while Pentecostal pastor Andrei Kuznetsov declared that if necessary, `believers are ready to go out on the streets in protest'.

Avoiding just such conflict was clearly the aim of the event, since Karnaukhov implored the Protestants not to resort to the `methods of the past' by staging public demonstrations. In addition to inviting director of the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Law, Anatoli Pchelintsev, to address the meeting with an inevitably negative evaluation of the local law's constitutionality, Karnaukhov attempted to pacify the Protestants by emphasising that he had `no doubts of the devotion to their motherland of the churches gathered here today'. He was assisted in this task - conspicuously - neither by assistant head of the justice department, Anatoli Yevdoshchenko, who declared the law to be in accordance with the federal law, nor by Belgorod's plenipotentiary for religious affairs, Aleksei Glushchenko, who, although the situation lay directly within his brief, remained all but silent throughout the meeting and later maintained to Keston that the law did not contradict the constitution. In their place Karnaukhov was seconded by a representative of Belgorod's security apparatus, assistant head of the Department for Security and the Consolidation of Law and Order, Grigory Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko promised the Protestants that until the law was either reviewed by Russia's Constitutional Court or was annulled by the regional duma, it would practically not be enforced. In addition, he strongly advised the church representatives to address their concerns to assistant head of Belgorod's administration, Oleg Polukhin, in order to resolve the situation.

The initiatives by Belgorod's FSB and justice department to minimise the impact of the missionary law regulations may well have originated in Moscow - on 16 May Bishop Ioann admitted to Keston to having been reproached for the law by the official in charge of registration of religious organisations at the Ministry of Justice, Viktor Korolyov. It is the personal view of local FSB chief Grebenyuk, however, that `the Orthodox are losing ground' in Belgorod due to their `excessive conservatism - they build and engage in property, while the Protestants take an individual approach.'

If the local FSB and department of justice report that moves to create a miniature Orthodox state in Belgorod have disrupted rather than ensured religious stability in the region, any proposals for a similar experiment at the federal level may be rejected. (END)