RUSSIA: Challenge To Regional Missionary Law Fails.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 6 December 2001

Despite strong criticism from religious minorities, a law which controls missionary activity, adopted in Russia's southern Belgorod region in January (see KNS 31 May 2001) remains all but unchanged after a legal challenge failed.

The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on 3 December rejected a protest by Belgorod's public prosecutor against the failure by that region's court to overturn parts of a local law regulating missionary activity.

Public Prosecutor Pavel Kondrashov's first protest against the law, which was signed by governor Yevgeni Savchenko on 19 March, came on 18 May, when he sent a formal protest to Belgorod's regional duma (parliament) disputing four of its provisions as contradicting federal 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 wage and the cessation of their missionary activity for repeated violations.

Subsequent to the Belgorod duma's rejection of this protest by an official decree dated 10 July, the case was considered by Belgorod's regional court. On 21 August its judge, Vera Motlokhova, ruled that only one provision be struck down - the second part of Article 4, which states that repeated violations incur a ban. At no stage were other aspects of the law considered, 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 nonbelievers" (Article 2, Part 1), or the requirement for the written permission of parents or guardians in order to carry out such activity among minors (Article 3, Part 4).

At the 3 December Supreme Court hearing observed by Keston News Service, representatives of Belgorod administration, the Russian Orthodox diocese of Belgorod and Stary Oskol and the regional duma were called to cite their reasons for opposing Public Prosecutor Kondrashov's protest. All three - Dmitry Zavidov, Vladimir Lukin and Oleg Uskov respectively - pointed out that the rights to distribute literature and conduct rites in particular locations are given to religious organisations by the 1997 federal law on religion (Articles 16 and 17). As a result, they argued, anyone engaging in such activity must provide documentation proving affiliation to a religious organisation. Zavidov stressed that the local missionary law "does not prohibit anything - it only creates order," while both Uskov and Lukin maintained that its disputed provisions in fact protected the rights of religious organisations, since they prevented "imposters standing in their name."

The two Supreme Court judges who spoke cut short the three representatives' attempts to explain the reasons for the adoption of the law, criticised its broad definition of missionary activity and the fact that the working group which drew it up was composed solely of representatives from Belgorod's department of justice, regional administration and Russian Orthodox diocese, and not representatives of other religious confessions.

While Yelena Lazareva of Belgorod's department of justice had appeared alongside these same three representatives at the 21 August regional court hearing, no department of justice representative was present at the Supreme Court on 3 December. At the regional court hearing Lazareva had agreed with Public Prosecutor Kondrashov that the disputed provisions of the missionary law ran "counter to federal law and restrict the rights of citizens to freedom of conscience."

Also absent from the 3 December Supreme Court hearing was Public Prosecutor Kondrashov himself, in whose stead appeared Marina Germasheva, a justice adviser from the office of the general public prosecutor. Germasheva supported the argument of the opponents of the Belgorod public prosecutor's protest that, since dictionary definitions defined a missionary as "one who is sent", missionaries must act on behalf of the religious organisations who sent them and produce documentation to prove it. The Belgorod public prosecutor's protest, she declared, emanated from "incorrect interpretation of federal law."

Speaking to Keston by telephone on 5 December, Gyulnara Aliyeva of Belgorod's department of justice stated that although her department had received prior announcement of the Supreme Court hearing, it was not obliged to send a representative.

Also speaking to Keston from Belgorod on 5 December, public prosecutor's office official Eduard Kremnyov said that it was normal practice for the general public prosecutor's office to represent a regional public prosecutor at the Supreme Court. This representative was bound to make decisions "on the basis of the law," he said, and so could put forward an opinion different from that of the regional public prosecutor being represented. (END)