BACKGROUND BRIEF: Religious Registration: Cutting Out the Opposition.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 May 2002

When Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council ruled that the proposed new law on religion approved by parliament in January violated the country’s constitution, among the provisions it highlighted was the requirement that all mosques and Islamic establishments must be founded and controlled by the Muslim Administration of Kazakhstan in order to gain registration. This was merely the latest attempt by governments in the former Soviet republics to confine registration within one denomination or faith to just one administration, in effect specifying that only one administration for any one faith is permissible.

Such draconian measures to support state-approved religious administrations and effectively outlaw any competitors are increasingly a feature of religious laws in the former Soviet republics – and one that clearly contradicts states’ international human rights commitments (as states-parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other covenants) and as members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and, in the case of the European states in the CIS, the Council of Europe.

Latvia’s 1995 religion law goes further, de facto banning the registration of more than one central organisation for any one denomination. “Congregations of the same denomination may establish only one religious association (Church) in the country,” Article 7 part 3 declares. Despite subsequent amendments to the law, this provision has remained unamended and unchallenged.

The main victim has been the Latvian Orthodox Autonomous church led by Bishop Viktor (Kontuzorov) of Daugavpils and Latvia (subject to the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Valentin of Suzdal and Vladimir, leader of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church), which rejects the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate’s autonomous diocese in Latvia. Other victims include one branch of the Old Believers and the Confessional Lutheran Church of Latvia, which accepts all the same creeds as the registered Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church but believes that its rival is too liberal. Gundars Bakulis, head of the Confessional Church, told Keston that the denial of registration as a central body has left his Church – which has nine congregations registered at a local level - “very much handicapped”, especially in building. “Our reputation has suffered also, as it is easier to label us as a sect,” another pastor told Keston. Bakulis attributed the existence of this provision to pressure from the dominant Lutheran and Catholic Churches which, he claimed, want to block the activities of rival groups. “It is a shame that Latvia is following the same pattern as countries lacking any sense of democracy,” he added.

Even Ringolds Balodis, head of the Religious Affairs Board of the Ministry of Justice and a lecturer at the Law Faculty of the University of Latvia, is unhappy with this provision of the law. “There is no justification for such a restriction,” he declares bluntly. “The principle ‘One Church for One Confession’ does not comply with the principle of religious freedom and contradicts the Latvian Constitution.” However, he adds that in his job as a state official it is his duty to enact the law passed by parliament.

While Latvia has adopted a law affecting all religious groups across the board, Azerbaijan has chosen to focus on Muslims, spelling out that Muslim communities outside the framework of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus are “illegal”, despite the fact that Azerbaijan’s religion law does not require religious groups to register in order to function. Article 9 of Azerbaijan’s religion law requires mosques to be subordinate to the Spiritual Administration in order to be able to register and Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, has stated that “independent” Muslims or communities from strands in Islam such as the Wahhabis cannot be registered. Although the Spiritual Administration is composed both of communities from the Shia branch of Islam (which is in the majority in Azerbaijan) and the minority Sunni branch, communities of these or other strands may not be prepared to register under the framework of the Spiritual Administration, both for theoretical reasons (they may disagree with the theological views of the leadership) or practical reasons (they may object to the closeness of the Chief Mufti, Allahshukhur Pasha-zade, to the regime). Hundreds of mosques have been or are threatened with closure as a result of such steps, as well as madrassahs (religious schools).

Azerbaijan’s State Committee – without even the legal justification it can claim with regard to Muslim groups – has also refused to register more than one competing entity of other faiths, such as the Lutherans (the committee has this year registered one group to which it had long denied registration, while simultaneously denying re-registration to the other) and Baku’s Ashkenazi Jewish community, which has been riven by an internal dispute.

Even in Moldova – a state that does not in law “protect” the dominant body within a religious denomination – the government has barred the registration of rival Orthodox jurisdictions to the dominant Russian Orthodox Church. Despite comprehensively losing its case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg in March over the protracted denial of registration to the Bessarabian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, the Moldovan government is finding it hard to admit that more than one jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church can be registered in the country.

Likewise Belarus has denied registration to the Ahmadiyya faith on the grounds that it is not recognised as an authentic Islamic body by the Muslim World League and the official Muslim leadership in Belarus. The Ahmadi community figures on a list of “destructive” religious organisations that cannot be registered because their activity “violates” Belarusian law. A separate list – which includes the Mennonites – covers religious groups whose activity is “subject to scrutiny” by religious experts. In practice, the government has also barred the registration of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, on the grounds that a canonical entity – the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate – is the only Orthodox jurisdiction that may be registered.

Practice from a variety of states in the region shows that “traditional” faiths have been the main victims of these government-sanctioned bans on rival jurisdictions, especially Muslims and Orthodox. As the faiths that the majority of the populations traditionally adhered to, their respective leaderships have enjoyed political clout which has helped them lobby their respective governments for help in keeping their communities together and fighting off the opposition. More disturbingly for Muslims, any desire to dragoon all Muslims into one administration ignores the wide divergence of religious tradition and practice between Sunni and Shia Muslims, let alone Ismaili, Sufi and Wahhabi Muslims. This could be compared to having just one legal denomination for all Christians. “Governments have no business involving themselves in such theological issues,” declares Dr. Jeremy Gunn, Senior Fellow for Religion and Human Rights at Emory University Law School (USA). “Decisions about what is religiously orthodox, traditional, or heretical should be made by communities of believers and not by legislators or bureaucrats.”

Such arbitrary interpretation of the law – or indeed, the violation of it – has rarely been challenged either in local courts or by international courts – such as the ECHR, to whose jurisdiction Council of Europe member states are subject. However, the case at the ECHR brought by the Bessarabian Church, as well as a similar case brought by a Bulgarian Muslim leader who had been deposed in favour of a rival, have sent a strong signal – not least financial – that governments should not decide arbitrarily what constitutes the only valid expression of a denomination’s identity. “Need it be pointed out that it is not the function of government to establish by fiat the defining boundaries of a religious body?” the Bessarabian Church’s lawyer, John Warwick Montgomery, argued to the ECHR. “If religious believers do not consider themselves members of Church A and wish instead to establish Church B, it is for them, not for the political authorities, to make such a decision.”

In Serif v Greece, a case in which the ECHR refused to justify the criminal conviction of a Muslim leader because he conducted religious activities outside the framework of a recognised Muslim body, the court was even blunter: “the Court does not consider that, in democratic societies, the State needs to take measures to ensure that religious communities remain or are brought under a unified leadership”. And the ECHR rejected any argument that potential rivalry between any two competing jurisdictions might justify backing one against the other: “Although the Court recognises that it is possible that tension is created in situations where a religious or any other community becomes divided, it considers that this is one of the unavoidable consequences of pluralism. The role of the authorities in such circumstances is not to remove the cause of tension by eliminating pluralism, but to ensure that the competing groups tolerate each other&ldots;”

As long as major religious denominations can lobby their governments to “protect” them from competition from rival jurisdictions, and as long as international human rights mechanisms are ineffective at overturning such selective discrimination, true religious freedom not only for all faiths but for all strands of any faith will not be assured. (END)