ESTONIA: President Refuses to Sign Controversial Religion Law.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 June 2001

President Lennart Meri refused to sign the new law on churches and congregations adopted by parliament on 13 June citing `disproportionate restrictions' on the exercise of religious freedom, his office told Keston News Service from Tallinn on 29 June. Opposition to the law from a variety of religious groups within Estonia had focused on a provision banning foreign-led religious communities (apart from individual congregations) gaining registration (see KNS 28 June 2001). President Meri took into account the opposition to the law from the Council of Churches in the wake of its meeting yesterday (28 June).

The presidential press service told Keston that the law will be sent back to parliament on 2 July with the president's resolution explaining why he refused to sign it, and the law will again go for debate in parliament, the Riigikogu. If parliament adopts the same text a second time, the president has the choice of signing it or sending it for adjudication by the Supreme Court.

Among the religious communities welcoming the president's refusal to sign the law in the current form was the Russian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (which does not have registration in Estonia). Father Leonti Morozkin, a spokesman for the Estonian diocese led by Metropolitan Kornily, described the move as a `positive development'. `This moment could give us some hope,' he told Keston from Tallinn on 29 June, `although the decision is fairly surprising.' He pointed out though that the issue still remains of his Church's lack of registration.

Father Leonti expressed some concern that parliament could try to force through the same text again, including in particular the ban on foreign-led communities. `Some political forces will insist on this principle,' he warned. `I have no special optimism.' He complained of what he regarded as the `strange haste' in enacting this law in the first place. `We did not expect it to reach parliament until the autumn - it is difficult to say why it went through so fast.'

In his resolution, President Meri described the proposed ban on registering religious groups whose administrative or economic decisions are taken outside Estonia (Article 14 (3) of the law) as `an intrusion into the sphere of autonomy of religious unions' which is guaranteed by the constitution. Any such restriction on fundamental religious rights must, he stressed, `be necessary in a democratic society and not distort the nature of the rights and freedoms restricted'. He noted that the Council of Churches had warned that groups `that have traditionally been active in Estonia', among them the Adventist Church, might be denied registration under this provision. `No reasons for including the restriction provided in Article 14 (3) of the new law are apparent.'

An official of the Mission to Estonia of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) explained that the mission had not been consulted and thus had not given an assessment of the new law. `It does not fall within our mandate as we see it,' the mission's legal adviser Stephan Heidenhain told Keston from Tallinn on 29 June. The Russian delegation to a meeting on freedom of religion and belief in the OSCE region organised by the OSCE in the Dutch town of The Hague on 26 June raised the Moscow Patriarchate's concerns about the new law and the lack of registration of its diocese in Estonia and asked the OSCE to take up these concerns with the Estonian government. (END)