ESTONIA: Will New Law Deny Legal Status to Foreign-Led Faiths?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 June 2001

Several religious faiths have expressed their concern about the new law on churches and congregations, adopted by parliament on 13 June, which - if approved by the president - will deny legal status to religious organisations (apart from individual congregations) which are led from abroad. The diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church - which does not have legal status in Estonia - has been the most vocal in its complaints, but Adventists, Bahais, Jehovah's Witnesses and some Protestants have told Keston News Service that they object to this provision also.

Article 14 (3) of the new law declares: `The holder of the register does not register a church or a union of congregations whose permanent or temporary administrative or economic management takes place or whose decisions need affirmation by the leader or administration abroad.' (The law defines a `church' as a religious group that adheres to the three creeds of the Christian faith, a reference to the Lutherans, the Catholics and the Orthodox, while a `union' must have at least three individual congregations of any faith.) Article 14 (4) states that these provisions do not encompass doctrinal issues, while Article 14 (5) adds that the provisions do not extend to religious associations operating in Estonia according to international contracts, a reference to the Catholic Church, which operates under an agreement between the Estonian state and the Vatican.

Epp Alatalu, spokeswoman for President Lennart Meri, told Keston from Tallinn on 28 June that the president has until 4 July to sign or reject the law. `Different churches and congregations have written to the president asking him not to promulgate the law,' she declared. `There have been no letters supporting the law, but people tend to write only when they oppose something.' She said the president was seeking advice from experts on religious liberty as to whether to sign the law or not and would be helped in his decision by a meeting about the new law today (28 June) of the Council of Churches, which brings together eight of the major Christian denominations.

Ringo Ringvee, an official of the Department of Religious Affairs in the Interior Ministry told Keston from Tallinn on 25 June that the new law will come into force only once the president has signed it. He was clearly sceptical about the article barring foreign-led organisations from gaining legal status, describing it as `legal nonsense in many ways' as it affects only churches and unions of congregations, not single congregations. `If you form a congregation it could be led from abroad, if you form a union of congregations or a church (in the legal definition) and your administrative or economic decisions need approval from abroad, registration would be denied. So it does not affect the Latter Day Saints [Mormons], as they have one congregation in Estonia. It does not affect the Old Believers either, because as far as I know their economic and administrative decisions do not need approval from any centre or leader abroad. With the Seventh Day Adventists it may become complicated as they belong to the Baltic Union of the Adventist Church, and follow instructions from abroad.'

Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, the spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, sharply criticised the new law, highlighting the provision banning the registration of foreign-led churches. `This means the complete delegitimisation of our church structure in that country,' he told a conference on religious freedom in Moscow on 21 June

Several religious communities are appealing to the president over this controversial provision of the new law. Tuno Jugar, the head of the Adventist Church, told Keston from Tartu on 27 June that his Church had written to President Meri asking him to stop the law and reconsider some of its provisions. `We're a worldwide church and we depend on the leadership abroad,' Jugar declared. `There is a danger we will lose legal status if this law is adopted.' He declined to comment on why he believed the law had been adopted.

Lembit Reile, legal advisor to the Jehovah's Witnesses, told Keston from Tallinn on 28 June that his community will be sending the same letter to the president that it had sent to the parliamentary justice commission ahead of the parliamentary consideration complaining of `confusion' in the wording of Article 14. `We don't like this provision,' Reile told Keston. `All religions are worldwide. It is therefore difficult to define the boundary between theological and administrative and financial leadership. It is an artificial boundary.'

Reile said he did not think the Jehovah's Witnesses would lose legal status if the new law was adopted, declaring that the community was already abiding by civil law that requires all decisions in such organisations to be taken within the country. `Our headquarters is in Brooklyn, but we act within Estonia as the Jehovah's Witness Union.'

Foad Vojdani, general secretary of the Bahais' National Assembly in Estonia, told Keston on 27 June that his community opposed Article 14 `absolutely', although he was not sure if his community would lose its legal status. `Our world conference is in Haifa, but our national assembly is here in Estonia. Bahai institutions in each country are autonomous.' Vojdani was also concerned that the wording of the new law followed Christian terminology, such as over `churches' and `priests', while he claimed no more than fifteen per cent of the country was Christian.

The Baptist Union is less concerned by the new law. General secretary Tarmo Kahr told Keston on 27 June that it `satisfies us and won't affect us or obstruct our activity'. On Article 14 he declared: `All our leadership is within Estonia. However, we are worried about the potential impact of the article on other religious communities. It is not yet clear how this will be implemented. It would be better to rewrite this article, although it is important that religious movements function in Estonia legally.'

Similar views were expressed by Olav Parnamets, head of the Methodist Church. `If we compare our church constitution with the new law, I can't see there would be any hindrances to our work or registration, but we can see it may affect other groups like the Russian Orthodox Church under Moscow,' he told Keston from Tallinn on 27 June. `We would like to have a situation where the state does not intervene in the affairs of churches. Article 14 of the new law makes the situation worse.' He believed the provisions of the article should not be applied to mainstream religious communities, only to `dangerous cults', among whom he identified Christian Scientists and Satanists `whose activities are obviously destructive'.

However, Parnamets was pleased that the new law gave no privileges to any particular `historic' churches, as had been mooted in earlier years. `This law is more democratic as the Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic Churches are not considered in essence state churches.'

Ringvee told Keston that the impetus for amending the 1993 law came from the Justice Ministry. `The main reason for the new law was to take into account new legal acts regarding the status of legal entities (the General Part of the Civil Code, the Law on Non-profit Association Act and others) and to transfer the existing Register of Churches, Congregations, and Unions of Congregations from the administration of executive power (the Ministry of Internal Affairs) to the authority of the courts, where other registries of legal entities are, while simultaneously preserving the register as a whole.'

Asked why the decision had been taken to introduce this article, Ringvee declared: `This was a last minute decision to implement this by the politicians,' and referred all enquiries to them. He also declined to comment on whether President Meri was likely to sign the law. (END)