RUSSIA: Baptist Church to be Razed By Ring-Road.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 6 June 2002

A Baptist prayer house in the city of Kazan (500 miles or 800 kilometres east of Moscow) is being threatened with demolition in order to make way for the Tatar capital's new ring road.

Completed in 1997, the prayer house is an imposing two-storey building surrounded by one-storey country-style houses (dachas) in an outlying district of Kazan. Built with donations from its 400-strong congregation and foreign supporters, the church contains various teaching and meeting rooms in addition to its spacious main worship hall.

Like the Soviet-era branch of the Baptist Council of Churches (also known as the Initsiativniki Baptists) from which it broke away in 1993, the independent Kazan Baptist congregation rejects current Russian registration requirements as "unacceptable", parishioner Nadezhda Sharipova told Keston News Service in Kazan on 24 May.

Since the church therefore constitutes a "religious group" according to Russia's 1997 law on religion, it does not have legal personality status and is consequently unable to possess property in its own name. According to the same law, however, "premises and property necessary for the activities of a religious group are provided for the use of the group by its participants." (Article 7, Part 1) In the eyes of the state, explained Sharipova, the prayer house is thus a private building belonging to a parishioner, Andrei Yelizarov.

"We are unregistered, but the law allows for that form of existence, and we have never met with difficulties due to it before," the church's pastor, Mikhail Trofimov, told Keston on 27 May. After being warned of the proposed route of the ring road in late August 2001, Trofimov and the congregation's 250 full members signed a letter addressed to the head of Kazan municipal administration suggesting three solutions to the church's plight. These were: 1) that the proposed route of the ring road be changed, 2) that a similar building be made available in its place or 3) that a plot of land be allocated where the church could build a new prayer house, "although such a solution is extremely burdensome for us when one takes into account that in our community we do not have New Russians [nouveau riche] or businessmen who could sponsor a new building."

In March this year, according to Trofimov, the church received a reply stating that land for construction would be offered - "the most difficult option for us." Directed to address a request for land to Kazan's Municipal Architecture and Town Planning Department, the church was informed on 6 May by its chairman, Askhat Gilyatzetdinov, that the competent department to deal with the issue was in fact the Tatar capital's Municipal Department for Relations with Social Organisations and the Media. In addition, wrote Gilyazetdinov, "objects connected with cultic performance belong to forms of property use requiring special agreement via public hearings."

Pastor Trofimov told Keston that the church has yet to receive a reply to its similar request submitted to Airat Zaripov, chairman of the Municipal Department for Relations with Social Organisations and the Media, on 24 May.

In an interview with Keston on 28 May, chairman of Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs, Renat Nabiyev, said that he was not aware of the unregistered Baptist congregation or the threat to its prayer house posed by the planned ring road. Asked what would be the most likely outcome, he replied: "Nothing - what can you do if it is in the way?" After consulting by telephone with his Council's Protestantism specialist, Igor Kornilov, he continued: "If they're unregistered it is the problem of the private citizen who owns the building. If it were a registered community then it would be a different matter:" Nabiyev stressed to Keston, however, that there would be "compensation or a new place."

While heartened that the various state departments have so far addressed their correspondence to the Kazan Baptist Church rather than a private individual, Pastor Trofimov remains concerned at the great expense incurred should the congregation - as seems likely - have to build from scratch. "We have 120 children and we want to build a school for them," he told Keston,"but we can't due to the uncertainty of this problem." (END)