RUSSIA: 300 Amendments To Religion Law under Consideration.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 4 December 2001

Over the coming months some 300 amendments to Russia's religion law are to be considered by a working group attached to the government's Commission for Religious Associations, the chairman of the former and vice-chairman of the latter, Andrei Sebentsov told Keston News Service in his office in the Russian parliament - the White House - on 28 November. In order to avoid a situation in which passions are inflamed and "out of which there is no reasoned exit," he explained to Keston, the working group will take its time over its deliberations.

According to another working group member and secretary of the presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, this review of the law was proposed by a 29 May gathering of the Council. Subsequently backed by the presidential administration, Kudryavtsev told Keston on 7 September, the review was entrusted to Sebentsov's Commission, which went on to found the working group on 23 October. At the group's 16 November meeting it was decided that Sebentsov alone would provide public commentary on its work.

Speaking at a conference in Moscow organised by the religion faculty of the Russian Academy for State Service (RASS) on 15 November, Sebentsov told delegates that prior to the 23 October meeting Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II had telephoned the chairwoman of the Commission, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, to say that Russia's law on religion was perfectly satisfactory and that there was no need to amend it. At his 21 November press conference, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, also stated that he would not insist on amendments. Since the patriarch criticised the religion law as "imperfect" on 26 September 2000, according to a report by Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, this would appear to mark a shift in the Church's position.

This development surprises Sebentsov: "The recommendation [to review the law] was made by the presidential Council, which contains three members of the Holy Synod [Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Metropolitan Yuvenali of Krutitsy and Kolomna and Metropolitan Sergi of Solnechnogorsk], so they should have said something then." Metropolitan Sergi is also a member of the working group reviewing the law, which, unlike the government Commission, is half comprised of religious representatives. The 14 participants in its most recent meeting on 21 November included Russian Orthodox (2), Old Believer (1) Pentecostal (1), Muslim (1) and Jewish (2) representatives, as well as officials specialising in religious affairs from the Ministry of Justice, the presidential administration, Moscow City Council, RASS and the Duma (parliament) religion committee.

Interviewed by Keston, Sebentsov confirmed that once his working group has drafted the proposed amendments, they must gain the approval of the Duma religion committee before consideration by parliament itself. There may well be attempts at that stage to introduce some of those privileges for "traditional" confessions which Sebentsov considers anti-constitutional (see separate KNS article) - committee chairman Viktor Zorkaltsev hosted a parliamentary hearing devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church's social doctrine in the Duma on 6 July, while earlier in the year vice-chairman Aleksandr Chuyev voiced support for amending the law to give "traditional" religious organisations special access to the media and education. In view of this, Sebentsov stressed to Keston, the working group would not propose some radical changes to the law which he considered desirable, such as "completely doing away with the preamble." (The preamble to the 1997 law highlights the "special contribution" of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and declares respect for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.) Could the Duma committee nevertheless not overturn much that the working group proposed, Keston asked Sebentsov? Theoretically it could, he replied, "but they won't manage it in practice - everything we propose will be very well thought through." (END)