RUSSIA: Will Local Religion Laws be Revoked?

by Aleksandr Schipkov, Keston News Service, 14 June 2001

The inaugural meeting of the reconstituted Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations under the Russian President, heard differing views on regional legislation on missionary activity, with senior officials recognising that many contained provisions violating the constitution, while some religious representatives tried to defend them. The meeting, which took place on 29 May in the offices of the presidential administration and was chaired by Aleksandr Voloshin, discussed progress on work `to introduce standard legal documents to the subjects of the Russian Federation relating to freedom of conscience in accordance with the Russian constitution and with federal laws'.

Deputy minister of justice Yevgeny Sidorenko told the Council that in 33 of the Russian Federation's 89 'subjects' (administrative regions), some 50 laws and regulations had been adopted on the activity of religious associations of which his ministry had deemed 35 to be unconstitutional. He highlighted infringements of the following articles of the constitution:

Art. 71 `The Russian Federation includes within its remit the regulation and protection of civic and human rights and freedom' (where he believed many of the regions had gone beyond their remit);

Art. 14: `Religious associations are separate from the state and are equal before the law';

Art. 62: `Foreign citizens and individuals who do not have citizenship have equal rights and responsibilities to those of citizens of the Russian Federation'.

Asked if any regions had managed to bring local legislation on freedom of conscience into line with federal law, Sidorenko named six where the Ministry of Justice had revoked local legislation: Oryol, Lipetsk, Tula, Arkhangelsk, Ryazan and Udmurtia. Amendments had been made to local legislation in Bashkiria, Ossetia, Tyumen and Perm. Twenty-two regions had failed to bring their legislation into conformity with the constitution, he noted.

Some religious groups have already begun legal moves to challenge the constitutionality of such regional religious laws. On 31 May representatives of religious organisations in Belgorod lodged an appeal with the constitutional court calling for the regional law on missionary activity to be revoked.

At the Moscow meeting, Sidorenko stressed that missionary activity could not be regulated by law. A senior hierarch of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Yuvenaly (Poyarkov) of Krutitsy and Kolomna, a member of the Council, raised an objection with the deputy minister. `Once local legislation is adopted it means that it has been adopted deliberately, and we need to understand the reasons for its appearance.' Metropolitan Yuvenaly suggested inviting representatives from the Federation's regions to the next meeting, so that they could explain why they had adopted these laws and how they would `proceed in the future without these laws'.

However, Pyotr Konovalchik, leader of the Evangelical Christians-Baptists, strongly rejected such an invitation: `There is no reason to listen to the excuses of those who have broken the law.' He was supported by Ravil Gainutdin, head of the Russian Council of Muftis, who complained that `local laws are adopted in an attempt to improve the situation, but often the situation deteriorates because of their effect.' (END)