RUSSIA: Mormon Registration in Tatarstan At A Stalemate.

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 17 January 2002

Nearly three years after it lost its registration and two and a half years after it lodged a further application, the congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) in Tatarstan's capital Kazan appears no nearer to gaining registration. Two missionaries from the United States discovered in Kazan by officers of Tatarstan's internal affairs ministry had their visas curtailed and had to leave Russia on 10 January, Michael Jenson, a lawyer of the Mormons' Central European representation, told Keston News Service on 11 January. A ministry official told Keston that the two had been denied registration in Tatarstan - one of the autonomous republics within the Russian Federation - because the congregation did not have registration. The Mormons' Russian lawyer Lev Simkin told Keston that the Tatarstan authorities' decision violates the constitutional principle of freedom of movement by foreign citizens.

The Kazan congregation's registration application has made no progress in two and a half years even though the registering body is obliged to decide on registration within a month, or within six months if an expert commission is appointed. Contacted by Keston on 16 January, Gulnara Abdurakhmanova, the head of the department for the registration of religious organisations at the Registration Board of the Tatarstan Ministry of Justice, refused to explain why. She declared that the Board has no current application from the Mormons, adding that "the subject was closed long ago". However, a Mormon representative told Keston that the Council for Religious Affairs should have sent their application to the Registration Board last November.

Renat Nabiev, the head of the Tatarstan Council for Religious Affairs, told Keston from Kazan the same day that the Council has the documents and will be sending them for expert assessment. He said the Tatarstan government order creating the expert commission was expected within a week and the Mormon Church would be considered at the first meeting. Asked by Keston how this corresponded with federal law, Nabiev responded that since he was sure the Mormons would be recognised as a religious organisation it did not matter.

Tatarstan's Ministry of Justice registered the Kazan congregation on 10 January 1999. However, on 8 February 1999 the decision was reversed, in effect closing it down without a court hearing on the grounds that the organisation which had provided a juridical address for the congregation had withdrawn its letter of guarantee - under pressure from officials, according to the congregation. On 29 June 1999, having bought premises as a juridical address, the congregation submitted another application. In September 1999 the Registration Board replied that the application had been sent to a commission of experts on religion, a decision that contradicted the 1997 federal religion law, since the Mormons' central religious organisation had already been registered by the federal Ministry of Justice.

Tatarstan's own law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, signed by President Mintimer Shaimiev on 21 July 1999, limits the teaching of newly-arrived faiths and the activity of religious associations newly-established in Tatarstan "in the interests of public order and public safety" (article 5, point 2). In November 2001 the law was brought into line with the federal law, but at the same time Tatarstan included many provisions from its own law, including the invitation of foreign religious personnel only with the agreement of the state authorities, as corrections to the 1997 federal law, as the head of the amendments commission Andrei Sebentsev put it.

An article in the local paper Eastern Express of 21-27 December 2001 entitled "Baptism of dead citizens of Kazan" claimed that "American Mormonism" is a "totally improbable and wild form of religious delusion" and that "this sect is founded on both commonplace deception and utter delusions". In Tatarstan the Mormons "are busy buying up archival records of all deceased persons with the purpose of posthumous baptism". According to the paper it is possible to baptise posthumously not only one's relatives who were not Mormons but anyone at all, therefore "Mormons subscribe to the names of dead women and marry them so that after death all these women will form their harem". "To the credit of Tatarstan it should be noted that we are almost the only region of Russia that has refused to register this sect."

Meanwhile, Jenson told Keston, the congregation, with over 100 active members, cannot invite foreign missionaries to work, although nobody in Kazan objects to receiving humanitarian aid from Americans, including equipment for the city's children's hospital. The two US missionaries (who asked that their names not be mentioned) had to leave the country without having spent even half the time allowed by their visas. Jenson reported that they were unable to register their visas in the local visa and registration department of the Tatarstan Internal Affairs ministry, forcing them to come to Kazan for three days (the maximum period allowed without registration) and leave again.

Anas Sharipov, an official of the visa and registration department in Kazan, confirmed to Keston on 16 January that the missionaries were not registered in Tatarstan because the local religious organisation had not received state registration. "They violated the residence rules: they were not registered within three days and they secretly engaged in religious activity here, although they came on the invitation of their centre in Samara," Sharipov complained. "Therefore we shortened the validity of their visas to 10 January."

Professor Simkin declared that the Russian constitution permits foreign citizens to travel freely in all parts of Russia, except those with a special regime (such as frontier regions). "This is not the case with Kazan." Simkin explained that when registering their temporary residence, foreign citizens simply notify the authorities. However, he told Keston, the Tatarstan authorities have introduced permission in place of notification, in effect saying "we will register whom we want". "In itself the absence of registration of a religious organisation does not preclude the registration of foreign religious personnel who have arrived legally: that is the position of the Constitution and of the federal authorities." (END)