RUSSIA: Orthodox Church Attacks Government Moves to Amend Religion Law.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 6 February 2002

Moscow Patriarchate representatives and supporters have recently sharply criticised plans to amend Russia's 1997 law on religion. Although neither Patriarch Aleksi II nor Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad have directed their criticisms against a named figure or body, on 25 January Metropolitan Kirill did not refute a public claim made in his presence that the identity of the "single individual" who, he maintained, had no right to initiate the process, was Andrei Sebentsov. Sebentsov is chairman of the working group currently considering amendments to the 1997 law attached to the Russian government's Commission for Religious Associations.

On 25 January "Religion in Russia" website reported Patriarch Aleksi II as stating that although the 1997 law on religion was the "result of a difficult compromise" and, in his opinion, it should not be changed, "there are forces which are trying to do just that." Speaking on the same day from the praesidium of a Moscow conference on state-confessional relations organised by the Central Federal Okrug (one of seven regional administrative divisions in Russia), chairman of the Duma Committee for Religious and Social Organisations, Viktor Zorkaltsev, said that over the past four years the 1997 law had proved "viable, functional and practical." The motives and form of the current preparation of amendments to it, he maintained, were "incomprehensible."

Following Zorkaltsev's address, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad spoke at length on current plans to amend the 1997 law: "Why, all of a sudden, without co-ordination with religious organisations, is there a review process of this law? :This question of reviewing the law was not preceded by any lawful procedure, there was no request from religious organisations, no request from the procuracy, no request from the Ministry of Justice: Who is behind this process? I would very much like to know, I would very much like to see the initiators of this process. It is currently all focussed on the personality of a single person, but I do not think that one person can commence such a process in a vast country on his own initiative: No single official has the right to interpret the Constitution in such a way that it becomes an element of state policy."

On the official website of the Russian Orthodox Church, Viktor Zorkaltsev's address appears in full, while Metropolitan Kirill's has been edited by more than half. The Metropolitan's lengthy criticism of the current review process of amendments to the 1997 law detailed above is entirely absent. The only reference to the possibility of amendments states that, "should the law be changed without the slightest consultation with religious organisations," the delicate balance of interests which it represents will be upset.

During the time allotted for comments by conference participants, Vladimir Zhbankov, one of the co-authors of a proposed Russian religious policy (See KNS 13 June 2001), declared that, due to his position, Metropolitan Kirill had refrained from naming the official in question, "but I'll tell you - it's Sebentsov." According to Zhbankov, "No one has done more damage to the law than he, with his commentary: I don't know what sort of lawyer he is, but when I read it I am ashamed for him, it's obviously not written by a Russian native speaker, but outside the confines of this country."

Addressing the conference later in the day, director of the Institute for Religion and Law, Anatoli Pchelintsev, vehemently rejected Metropolitan Kirill's allegation that a single individual had initiated the review process without the knowledge of religious organisations. The Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations Attached to the President of the Russian Federation (17 of whose members - including Metropolitan Kirill himself - represent religious organisations) had recommended the review of the 1997 law on 29 May 2001, he pointed out, while the working group chaired by Sebentsov included the Moscow Patriarchate's lawyer, Viktor Kalinin, and Metropolitan Sergi of Solnechnogorsk.

On 7 September 2001 Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, another working group member and secretary of the presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations, also maintained to Keston that the review of the law had been proposed by a 29 May gathering of the Council. Subsequently backed by the presidential administration, he said, the review was entrusted to the Russian government's Commission for Religious Associations, which went on to found the working group on 23 October.

The minutes of the 23 October meeting, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, indeed contain a motion "approving the list of members of the working group which was created within the framework of the Commission in order to summarise and draw up proposals for the improvement of federal legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organisations." According to the same motion, Sebentsov is obliged to inform the Commission - which includes 17 representatives of religious organisations - about the working group's progress. (END)