RUSSIA: Opinion Divided Over Traditional Religious Organisation Status.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 5 February 2002

The draft law "On Traditional Religious Organisations" would allot state preferences but "would not limit freedom of conscience for anyone else," its author Aleksandr Chuyev claimed in an interview with Keston at the Duma (parliament) on 29 January.

Under the proposed law (see separate KNS article), Chuyev envisages the Russian Orthodox Church being granted all-Russian traditional religious organisation status, while Buddhists in Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva and Muslims in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, for example, might receive the status of traditional religious organisation of individual peoples of the Russian Federation. He thought that Old Believers and Catholics could be granted the status of historical traditional religious confession, "but it depends upon what they choose." In the case of the Catholics, he added, the categories of traditional religious organisation of individual peoples or representation of a foreign traditional religious organisation might also apply. Chuyev acknowledged that in the latter case the verdict of the Italian Embassy could be sought, since Russia is one of the few countries in the world with which the Vatican does not have full diplomatic relations.

As far as the draft law's Commission for the Support of Traditional Religious Confessions was concerned, said Chuyev, those religious organisations with representatives on the Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations Attached to the President of the Russian Federation, including "maybe Adventists and other Protestants," could prospectively be on it. He cited the example of the Jehovah's Witnesses, however, as an organisation which "never contributed to Russian heritage - let them function, but with no special status." In response to Keston's question of how the True Orthodox Church, for example, might receive traditional religious organisation status if the Russian Orthodox Church, as a Committee member, was opposed, Chuyev said that if the Church was registered and had contributed to Russian heritage it could present its case to the Commission, "and the Russian Orthodox Church would have to convince the other members against."

At the Sixth International Russian People's Council held at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 13 December 2001, only four confessions - Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism - were represented on the presidium. Although President Putin did not use the word at all when he referred to these four in his address, Patriarch Aleksi II subsequently praised as "inspirational" his comment that "traditional" religions co-operated in Russia.

The same four confessions were the only ones in evidence at "The State and Traditional Religious Organisations: Conceptual Bases for Mutual Co-operation After the Model of the Central Federal Okrug" (=district), a 25 January Moscow conference chaired by authorised presidential representative to the Central Federal Okrug, Georgi Poltavchenko. Addressing the conference to a resounding silence, director of the Institute of Religion and Law, Anatoli Pchelintsev, complained: "I don't see Old Believers, Lutherans or Catholics here - are we trying to conduct dialogue, or what?" Emphasising repeatedly that he was "not a specialist," Poltavchenko replied that the organisers had not invited other confessions since "traditional religious organisations are ones which have been present in the Russian state for many centuries and have contributed to Russian statehood - that's Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism." Without trying to offend anyone, he said, "Protestantism is not traditional for the Russian Federation - for England, maybe."

On 31 January Keston interviewed a representative of one of the absent confessions, Fr Igor Kovalevsky. The chancellor of the Apostolic Administration for Catholics of European Russia remarked that in his view the term "traditional religious confession" was too vague to be a legal concept. Acknowledging that predominantly Catholic Lithuania has various categories of traditional religion status in its 1995 law on religion (See KNS 29 May 2001), Fr Kovalevsky nevertheless maintained that, from the point of view of secular law, "all confessions should have the same rights." In his view, legal privileges such as greater access to state education would constitute "the crudest violation of the constitution."

At "The State and Traditional Religious Organisations:", Vladimir Zhbankov, one of the co-authors of a proposed Russian religious policy (See KNS 13 June 2001), pointed out that no state organ had yet pronounced an opinion on his and Igor Ponkin's work. Notwithstanding the Russian state's silence regarding a text sharing key features of his draft law, Aleksandr Chuyev nevertheless told Keston that, once he had incorporated suggestions from traditional religious organisations, the bill would be adopted "in a maximum of one-and-a-half months."

Aide to Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyov, Lev Levinson strongly disagreed. Speaking to Keston on 29 January, he remarked that he was "100 - no, 200 - per cent certain" that the bill would not pass, since it had not been agreed with the presidential administration. In his view Chuyev was merely currying favour as a lobbyist for the Moscow Patriarchate, for whom it was important to keep the idea of traditional status the subject of discussion. (END)