RUSSIA: 'I Was Set Up' Claims Protestant Lawyer.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 11 September 2001

The text of the draft religious policy first published on 8 June ‘was completely different’ from that which its co-author Igor Ponkin gave for evaluation in April to a Moscow-based lawyer specialising in religious freedom cases (see KNS 14 June 2001), the latter told Keston News Service on 31 August. ‘I was set up - they used my name,’ complained Anatoli Pchelintsev. ‘The April text - to which my 7 June evaluation refers - was much milder.’

Pchelintsev now ‘regrets’ writing that evaluation at a time, he admitted, when he was ‘unable to go into it thoroughly’. In his view, the draft policy produced by the Institute for State-Confessional Relations and Law, headed by Ponkin, and the assistant head of the Moscow city justice department, Vladimir Zhbankov (the 27 July text of which contains a second set of revisions - see KNS 10 September 2001) ‘seriously contradicts the constitution - specifically, the equality of all religious organisations before the law, the secular character of the state, and freedom of conscience - both individually and collectively.’ He now believes the draft religious policy produced by the religious faculty of the Russian Academy for State Service to be ‘weighty, more convincing and based upon the constitutional norms of international law’. In its published form, he said, the Ponkin-Zhbankov draft ‘will divide rather than stabilise society’.

Pchelintsev gave Keston a copy of the 25 April draft, of which Zhbankov does not appear as co-author. While the phraseology indeed differs extensively throughout the text, its content is less specific, rather than ‘different’. The April text, for example, has as the first aim of the state’s religious policy, ‘the preservation of the integrity of the Russian Federation, the spiritual distinctiveness of the peoples which inhabit it, and the preservation of national spiritual traditions’. In the 27 July text this appears as ‘the facilitation of the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the preservation and consolidation of the spiritual and moral potential of Russian society and the preservation of national spiritual traditions of the peoples of the Russian Federation’.

There are a few substantial differences in content from the later drafts, however. According to the texts published in June and July, ‘the state, recognising the equality of all religious organisations before the law and in accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, chooses the forms and scale of its co-operation with religious organisations, taking into account the number of citizens of the Russian Federation who express adherence to or a preferential regard for the organisations concerned.’ In the April text, the beginning of this phrase also includes ‘and recognising the equal rights of religious organisations’.

Speaking to Keston on 22 August, Ponkin maintained that the introduction of a traditional religion status was legitimate due to the absence of legal grounds for precisely this concept: ‘It would be different if the constitution said that all religious organisations have the same rights, but it doesn’t.’

Another major difference between the published and unpublished texts is the level of detail in the passages concerning traditional religion status. In the April text, the Russian Orthodox Church is described as playing the major role in defining interconfessional relations, ‘the bearing of Russian statehood’ and as an organisation, adherence to or a preferential regard for which is expressed by a majority of Russian citizens. ‘Islam and other traditional religious organisations’ are described as also being ‘an inalienable part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia’. Unlike subsequent drafts, however, there is no further mention of specific confessions, and the division into ‘traditional religious organisations of the Russian Federation’ and ‘traditional religious organisations of individual peoples of the Russian Federation’ (with examples) is entirely absent.

Notwithstanding the apparently ‘milder’ tone of the April text, however, one might expect some of its vaguer formulations - such as, in the list of the policy’s main tasks, ‘the prohibition of and curtailment of activity of destructive religious organisations’ - to be queried by a lawyer who has defended numerous Protestant groups against charges such as use of hypnotism.

On 7 September Ponkin maintained to Keston that the published version of his draft religion policy did not differ substantially from that which he initially gave to Pchelintsev for evaluation. ‘If anything, the ones which came later were more liberal,’ he claimed. ‘I gave each new text to him and so he is familiar with them all.’ (END)