RUSSIA SPECIAL REPORT: Regional Justice Departments Largely Follow Ministry's Benign Reregistration Policy.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 5 July 2001

`The results of registration and reregistration of religious organisations are testimony to the consolidation of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and conviction in Russian society,' reads the final document of a 21-22 June Moscow conference devoted to `Freedom of Conscience and the Provision of Mutual Religious Understanding'. The reason for this, the document avers, is that Russia's Ministry of Justice has registered `practically all centralised organisations holding state accreditation prior to the adoption of the 1997 law, in addition to a significant majority of local religious organisations'.

Addressing the same conference on 21 June, assistant head of the department for registration of religious organisations within the Ministry of Justice, Viktor Korolyov, pointed out that 92 per cent of Catholic, 90 per cent of Muslim, 97 per cent of Jewish and 87 per cent of Protestant organisations have been reregistered, and claimed that most of those now facing liquidation have either been unable to produce appropriate documentation or are defunct.

Local departments of justice, Korolyov told Keston News Service on an earlier occasion, are not legally obliged to publish their results of reregistration of religious organisations. Judging by those given to Keston during recent visits to three Russian provinces with varying religious freedom climates, however, such departments indeed appear to have been largely able to implement the benign policy towards reregistration pursued by the Ministry. Albeit significant, liquidation proceedings against functioning organisations which would prefer to retain their legal personality status, such as Victory of Faith Full Gospel Church in Khabarovsky Krai (see KNS 17 April 2001) and the Salvation Army in Moscow City (see KNS 5 July 2001), therefore appear to be a rarity.

The local authorities in the northern republic of Karelia for the most part have a noninterventionist policy towards religious organisations. Thus, despite acrimonious relations between the St Petersburg-based Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria and the breakaway Karelian Lutheran Church - which the former does not recognise, both organisations have been reregistered by the local department of justice in Petrozavodsk (575 miles north of Moscow). Speaking to Keston by telephone from the western Karelian town of Sortavala on 11 April, deaconess of the Karelian Lutheran Church Valentina Yeliseyeva said that her organisation had encountered `no obstacles' from the authorities despite attacks in the local press. And while Karelian Interior Minister Igor Yunash called upon the Karelian Foreign Ministry and FSB (former KGB) to `regulate the situation' regarding the growing public profile of the Muslim community in Petrozavodsk led by Visam Ali Bardvil in a 28 December 2000 letter (see KNS 1 May 2001), Visam told Keston on 18 April that his community had found registration `very easy'.

In an interview with Keston in Petrozavodsk on 19 April, the official responsible for reregistration of religious organisations at the local department of justice, Svetlana Mironova, said that a total of 156 organisations had registered or reregistered. The ten which would be liquidated, she added, consisted of five Russian Orthodox parishes in villages where the parishioners had dispersed, a Hare Krishna group which had already been liquidated, a charity previously registered as a Lutheran organisation, a Muslim organisation called `Islam' in the northern Karelian town of Kostomuksha in which a split had occurred and the factions of which were now seeking registration as new groups, and parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the True Orthodox Church, neither of which had submitted reregistration documentation.

In the region of Kursk (350 miles south of Moscow), 282 religious organisations have been registered or reregistered, while 20 face liquidation, plenipotentiary for religious affairs Aleksandr Shapovalov told Keston on 18 May. Of these 20, according to Shapovalov, 12 are Baptist communities which are `getting liquidated intentionally so as to create a large new single organisation within the Baptist Union', four are defunct Russian Orthodox parishes, three are parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and one is a Full Gospel church. Catholic, Jewish, Baptist and Hare Krishna representatives of Kursk communities have all told Keston in recent months that they found no difficulty reregistering.

In an example of how an organisation can come to be defunct, explained Shapovalov, the Full Gospel community `exists only on paper' since its leader, Vladislav Vorovik, has emigrated and it is now headed by another member, Oleg Panchenko, who has subsequently registered the community as a new organisation entitled `Strength of the Gospel.' Although new, it is not deprived of any rights under the 1997 law as it is affiliated to the centralised organisation `Charisma Association'.

The three Kursk parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad exist on more than paper, however, being functioning groups under the jurisdiction of Bishop Lazar (Zhurbenko) of Odessa that currently meet in private flats. They are unable to reregister, according to parish priest Fr Vladimir Tsukanov, since their documentation complies with Ukrainian rather than Russian law (see KNS 17 April 2001).

However, a parish in Kursk city belonging to the True Orthodox Church - which, according to its priest Fr Porfiry Katunin, is also under the jurisdiction of Bishop Lazar although outside the ROCA - has been reregistered. Speaking to Keston on 18 May during a break from renovating a former kindergarten into a church building for his parish, Fr Porfiry commented that they had `reregistered without problems - no one interfered at all, maybe because the Ministry of Justice insists on the letter of the law, or maybe because Yuvenali [the Russian Orthodox archbishop of Kursk and Rylsk] doesn't want to interfere.' The situation for the ROCA differed, in his opinion, since reregistration `is formally harder for them as a foreign church.'

In the neighbouring region of Belgorod, by contrast, the True Orthodox parish is without not only a church building but also registration, which, according to Fr Porfiry, it `lost' after initially registering in 1992. The parish is one of 20 religious organisations facing liquidation, the official in charge of registration of religious organisations at the Belgorod department of justice Gyulnara Aliyeva told Keston on 15 May, the remainder being 10 Baptist, five Russian Orthodox, one Old Believer, one Pentecostal, one ROCA and one Buddhist organisation. According to Aliyeva, all of these organisations had been informed and `none have resisted'.

Bishop Ioann of Belgorod and Stary Oskol was at first surprised when told on 16 May about the five Russian Orthodox organisations to be liquidated, but then recalled that there were a handful of brotherhoods and charitable organisations in the diocese which had ceased operating.

On 15 May local Baptist pastor Aleksandr Rebrilov seemed unconcerned about the Baptist organisations to be liquidated, explaining that they `either could not draw up their documents or were too small.' However, he claimed that there were only six - `ten is some kind of coincidental figure, not mine.' Pentecostal Pastor Vladimir Rybant told Keston that the one Pentecostal organisation `took the conscious decision not to reregister.' Although threatened by the recently adopted regional law regulating missionary activity (see KNS 31 May 2001), none of the Adventist, Baptist, Jehovah's Witness or Pentecostal representatives with whom Keston also spoke on 15 May reported any difficulties with reregistration, having five, 18, five and eight organisations registered respectively. While the ROCA parish is in the same situation as those in Kursk, the 247 registered organisations in the region also include a number of alternative Orthodox, such as three parishes of the Free Orthodox Church and two of the Kiev Patriarchate.

While officials from all three departments of justice assured Keston that liquidation would take place, in Belgorod the process had not yet begun, in Karelia, according to Mironova, it `depends upon the workload of the courts' and in Kursk, Tatyana Basova of the local department of justice told Keston in April, it may start in the second half of 2001.

While there was a clear discrepancy in the treatment given to the initial registration applications of Old Believers of the Pomorye Concord and the Roman Catholics in Belgorod (see KNS 30 May 2001), these were the only two official refusals issued. In Kursk Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists were given official refusals at first, according to Basova, but were later reregistered after altering their charters. In Karelia, no official refusals were issued, said Mironova: `if there was any query the organisations concerned approached us and we said what they needed to do.'

This is in stark contrast to the Moscow municipal department of justice. While only ten per cent of the 198 organisations which failed to reregister in the capital submitted applications and a further 449 were reregistered, according to figures published in the religious affairs newspaper NG-Religii on 11 April, the department issued a staggering 248 formal refusals. (END)