SLOVAKIA: Protestant Fellowships to Be Deregistered?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 31 October 2001

A group of independent Protestant congregations, known as the Christian Fellowships, have been warned by the Interior Ministry that they will lose registration as a civil association if they do not change their statute to exclude religious activity. The group cannot obtain registration with the Culture Ministry as a religious organisation, as it does not have the 20,000 members required by law to apply for such status. Pastor Ivan Zustiak, the head of the Christian Fellowships' board of pastors, said his church is alarmed at the consequences of the potential loss of registration. 'In reality it means that non-registered religious groups have huge problems renting rooms or holding public activities and they are virtually at the mercy of local city or village representatives,' he told Keston News Service on 1 October. 'Our basic premise is that we want to be registered either way,' Martin Macura, a church member, told Keston on 30 October. 'We do not want to operate as an unregistered group.' However, officials of a variety of state bodies have assured Keston that the group's registration is not under threat.

The questioning of the Christian Fellowships' status began earlier in the year. On 15 May, Stanislav Becica, the head of the general internal affairs department within the public affairs section of the interior ministry, wrote to the church declaring that its activities, such as meeting for worship and conducting evangelistic work, were not in line with its registration as a civil association and advising the church to halt such activity and amend its statute. If the church failed to comply, it would be shut down.

Pastor Zustiak and other church members eventually held a meeting in September with Jan Juran, the head of the church department at the Ministry of Culture, to discuss the church's desire to retain registration, either as a civil association or a religious organisation. Also present were officials of the Institute for State-Church Relations, a Bratislava-based institute established by the culture ministry mainly as an advisory body. On 26 September, in the wake of the meeting, Juran issued a statement which church members complained was vague. 'The statement is very evasive and unclear, written in a "comrade-like" tone, saying the Ministry does not want to harm us nor oppress us, that we have our rights etc,' Macura told Keston. 'However, the problem of our registration is not addressed at all. To address it would mean to acknowledge their own mistakes. Juran is saying that if a religious group registered as a civil association follows its internal rules and the rules have been approved by the state (which they have been), there is no reason to re-register or cancel the registration. This is, however, contrary to the law and the reason why the Interior Ministry wants to cancel our registration.' Church members fear that despite such official assurances, the group's contradictory status could still lead to loss of registration.

Officials told Keston that technically, religious groups can register as civil associations only for special purposes like publishing a book or helping old people, not for the purpose of conducting religious activity.

An official of the department of civil associations at the interior ministry, who preferred not to be named, told Keston that her department had investigated the legal status of the Christian Fellowships at the behest of the Culture Ministry. 'We received a request from them and we followed it up,' she told Keston on 30 October. 'We told the group that if it continues its religious activity it will lose legal status.' However, the official declared that the Christian Fellowships still had registration as a civil association. Asked whether she believed the 20,000-member threshold to gain legal status as a religious organisation was not absurdly high, she declared: 'I know, but it's the law. We're not responsible for laws in the sphere of culture.

'Radovan Cikes, an official of the culture ministry's church department, insisted to Keston that the problem over the Christian Fellowships' legal status had been solved. 'Your information is not very objective,' he told Keston by telephone from Bratislava on 30 October. 'They can do everything now. The problems are over.' However, Cikes admitted that the Christian Fellowships could never get registration as a religious organisation under the current law. 'They don't have 20,000 members.' He added that his ministry had questioned not only the status of the Christian Fellowships, but that of the Mormons and the Unification Church, both of which also have registration as civil associations.

Asked whether such a high membership threshold did not discriminate against smaller religious communities, Cikes declared: 'Yes. Our law on religion is ten years old now and perhaps we can do a new version of it. We know about the problems and will take steps to do something about them.' However, he insisted that there are reasons for such a high threshold. 'If they are registered, religious organisations get subsidies from the state and can operate in prisons and hospitals.' He believed it was not appropriate to offer such privileges to smaller groups. Cikes reported that of the 16 religious groups that have registered status, only one - the Jehovah's Witnesses - have gained such status since the end of the communist period (though unlike the other recognised groups the Jehovah's Witnesses do not get state subsidies). He admitted that of the 16, nine do not have 20,000 members but were able to gain that status under the new law as they already had such status earlier.

Asked why the religion law was not changed to end the discrimination against smaller communities, Cikes declared: 'The dominant church here is the Catholic Church.' He declined to elaborate.

Lucia Machackova of the Institute for Church-State Relations insisted that religious organisations could not register under the cover of civil associations. 'It is not legal to be registered as a civil association for the main purpose of being a church and conducting religious activity,' she told Keston from Bratislava on 30 October. 'There is no way religious organisations with fewer than 20,000 certified members can gain legal status and operate as religious organisations.' She added that it is her personal view that this did not accord with Slovakia's international human rights commitments, which require that the authorities should offer to all religious communities the same rights to seek registration. 'I think we need a new law on this.'

'Eleven years after the fall of communism in our country, there is still no legal basis for the creation of new churches,' Pastor Zustiak complains. 'The state tends to control and restrict the existing ones and hinder the creation of new ones.'(END)