RUSSIA: Draft Religious Policy Revised Again.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 10 September 2001

The draft religious policy co-authored by the Institute for State-Confessional Relations and Law (ISCRL) and the assistant head of the Moscow City Department of Justice, Vladimir Zhbankov, has received a further set of revisions (see KNS 27 June 2001). As previously, however, almost all the numerous changes in the new text, dated 27 July, are not substantive.

Perhaps most notable is the more precise enumeration of traditional religious organisations (rather than confessions). 'Over many centuries Islam became a state-forming religion of a number of indigenous peoples of Russia (Tatar, Bashkir and others),' reads the July text, 'and therefore the state works with historically-formed Muslim religious organisations.' Similarly, in place of the inclusion of Buddhism as an example of a traditional confession associated with particular peoples of the Russian Federation, the new text has 'religious organisations representing traditional forms of Buddhism'.

A further important change appears in the conclusion of the draft, which now has as its priority task 'the improvement of the legislation of the Russian Federation on freedom of conscience, freedom of belief and religious organisations,' rather than a specific reference to the formulation by the government of the Russian Federation of amendments to the 1997 law on religion and their subsequent consideration in the State Duma.

In recent weeks the ISCRL-Zhbankov draft religious policy has also solicited further evaluations by representatives of different religious confessions.

On 22 August ISCRL director Igor Ponkin told Keston that the re-wording of the passage on Islam had resulted from several recommendations by head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin. On 24 July Gainutdin wrote to Ponkin that his organisation 'evaluates positively the work which has been done so far' and - if three changes were made - would be 'prepared to give full support to the draft'.

On 28 June a Russian Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Mefodi of Voronezh and Lipetsk, declared that the ISCRL-Zhbankov draft needed to be further worked upon, but praised its 'proposal to introduce into legislation regulating state-confessional relations the concept of traditional religious organisations and traditional religious organisations of individual peoples of the Russian Federation'.

The ISCRL-Zhbankov draft was published in NG-Religii, the religious affairs supplement to the national daily newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, on 22 August. It quickly aroused intense discussion in the Internet forum of the same publication, including lengthy criticism of the draft religion policy produced by the religious faculty of the Russian Academy for State Service so detailed that one forum participant suggested that its author was one of the authors of the Zhbankov draft writing under a pseudonym.

There indeed appears to be an uncanny coincidence between the decision on 24 August by Oksana, a journalist from Yaroslavl, to criticise RASS religious faculty employee Remir Lopatkin for supporting persecution of a community of unregistered Baptists in Ivanovo region in 1970, and Ponkin's citation of the very same incident in harsh criticism of Lopatkin when speaking to Keston two days earlier. On 22 August Ponkin also gave Keston two detailed criticisms of the RASS draft comprising 15 and 31 pages, written by creationist Moscow parish priest Fr Daniil Sysoyev, and doctor of philosophical sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences, V. Katanosov, and Andrei Khvylya-Olinter, a legal specialist at the missionary department of the Moscow Patriarchate who formerly worked at the Interior Ministry. (END)