RUSSIA: Draconian Local Missionary Law to Be Repealed?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 18 October 2001

An attempt to strike down parts of the local law on missionary activity in Belgorod region, some 700 kilometres (450 miles) south of Moscow, has resulted in the removal of just one clause. Speaking to Keston News Service in neighbouring Voronezh region on 12 October, however, pastor of Belgorod's New Life Pentecostal Church, Vladimir Rybant, said that the case has recently been referred to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation as the campaign by local Protestant churches to repeal other provisions that violate federal law continues.

 Adopted by Belgorod's regional duma (parliament) on 19 March, 'On Missionary Activity on the Territory of Belgorod Region' contains numerous provisions which are unconstitutional, Moscow-based lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev told a meeting at Belgorod's department of justice on 15 May. At the same meeting, the assistant head of the region's Department for Security and the Consolidation of Law and Order, Grigory Dovzhenko, and the head of the department of justice, Vladimir Karnaukhov, exhorted Protestant representatives to use legal action in their efforts to overturn the law (see KNS 31 May 2001).

On 18 May the public prosecutor for Belgorod region, Pavel Kondrashov, sent a formal protest to the local duma disputing four parts of the law: Parts 1, 6, and 7 of Article 3 and Article 4. These stipulate respectively that 1) missionary activity is the right of certified representatives of a religious organisation; 2) residents of other Russian regions intending to carry out missionary activity in Belgorod must submit to the local authorities a document confirming their affiliation to a particular religious organisation, a copy of their invitation to the region, an itinerary of their stay, and proof of local registration; 3) foreign citizens are prohibited from conducting missionary activity if they have come to Belgorod for a different reason; and 4) those violating the law face a fine of between 50 and 100 times the minimum monthly wage and the cessation of their missionary activity for repeated violations.

There was no legal challenge to other restrictive aspects of the law, such as the broad definition of the activity subject to regulation ('the direct or indirect dissemination of doctrines and religious practices among those of another faith or non- believers' (Article 2, Part 1), or the requirement for permission in writing from parents or guardians in order to carry out such activity among minors (Article 3, Part 4).

In protesting these provisions to the regional duma, public prosecutor Kondrashov maintained that the law's requirements for specific documentation in order to conduct missionary activity 'infringe civil rights, since those without such documentation cannot realise their right: freely to disseminate religious convictions'. In stipulating fines and a possible ban for violations of the law, he argues, the duma as local legislative organ has 'exceeded its commission', since human rights and freedoms are regulated exclusively by federal law.

During ensuing debate of Kondrashov's protest in Belgorod's duma, assistant head of the regional administration, Oleg Polukhin, told deputies he had recently been visited by representatives 'of all those churches who are trying to work illegally in our area' - he mentioned Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals - 'at their insistent demand'. Polukhin complained that these Protestants were 'mostly young, very provocative' and had impertinently insisted that 'they be allowed to work without restriction'. The deputies subsequently voted to reject the public prosecutor's protest, which decision was confirmed by an official decree dated 10 July.

However, public prosecutor Kondrashov's protest was subsequently considered by Belgorod regional court. In her 21 August verdict, Judge Vera Motlokhova claims that Parts 1 and 6 of Article 3 of the local law do not contradict federal law because 'they do not establish any supplementary prohibitions'. Article 3 Part 7 is likewise in line with federal law, she maintains, since the 1997 law on religion states that foreign citizens may engage in professional - including missionary - activity only by invitation of a religious organisation. In addition to representatives of the local administration, the court called on a representative of the Russian Orthodox diocese of Belgorod and Stary Oskol as an 'interested party' to give his informed opinion: Vladimir Lukin - the diocesan assistant for economic and legal issues - maintained that the law 'not only does not contradict federal legislation, but is directed at the defence of religious organisations'. Pastor Rybant complained to Keston that no other religious representatives were invited to the hearing. Asked on 18 October why no representatives of other religious confessions were invited, Lukin told Keston that the protest was brought by the public prosecutor and so it was his decision whom to invite in the capacity of interested parties.

The regional court nevertheless did strike down one provision of the law - the second part of Article 4, which states that repeated violations incur a ban. Judge Motlokhova ruled that since the federal Administrative Code states that the removal from a citizen of a special right guaranteed by law may only by carried out according to federal law, this part of the local law should lose legal force. (END)