ESTONIA: Registration Transferred from Interior Ministry to Courts.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 4 July 2002

Under Estonia's new law on churches and congregations, which came into force on 1 July, responsibility for registering religious organisations that choose to seek legal status has been transferred from the Interior Ministry's Department for Religious Affairs to the local courts. "Religious organisations that currently have registration with our department have until 1 July 2004 to seek re-registration if they wish to retain legal status," Ringo Ringvee, chief specialist of the department, told Keston News Service from the Estonian capital Tallinn on 4 July. "Current registration is valid until then."

The new religion law was finally adopted on 12 February after being vetoed in June 2001 by then president Lennart Meri over what he regarded as "disproportionate restrictions" on the exercise of religious freedom (see KNS 14 September 2001) and again in January by the new president Arnold Ruutel.

Under the new procedure, religious organisations will need to register with one of four district courts, in Tallinn, Parnu, Tartu or Rakvere, depending on where they are based. Congregations of a larger body must register in the district court where the headquarters is based, but otherwise religious communities register in their local court. Under the new law, individual congregations need twelve founding members who are eligible to vote in local elections (both Estonian citizens and others living in the country legally for five years - mostly former Soviet citizens resident in Estonia who have not yet acquired citizenship). Religious organisations already registered with the Interior Ministry do not need to pay the 100 kroon registration fee (100 kroons = 6 US dollars/ 6 euros/ 4 British pounds).

Ilmo Au, head of the religious affairs department, has advised members of the Estonian Council of Churches to coordinate their re-registration applications so that they do not overload the courts with too many applications at any one time.

Ringvee said the decision to transfer responsibility for registration from his department to the courts was initiated by the Justice Ministry. He said there were two reasons for the move. "Firstly, all legal entities are registered by the courts - the only exception has been religious communities. Secondly, there is the question of separation of powers. The Interior Ministry, which handles government relations with religious communities, will be separated from the body that registers them."

Ringvee reported that his department - which consists of Au, himself and one other official - will continue to exist at least until July 2004 as a "mediator between the state and religious communities on matters that arise". Asked whether he believed the department would be necessary after that he responded: "We will see in two years' time."

Erik Joks, executive secretary of the Estonian Council of Churches, a government-funded body bringing together eight registered Christian Churches, with a further three who have applied to join, says the transfer of responsibility for registration is not a significant move. "It is not such a big move - it's just a formality," he told Keston from Tallinn on 4 July. He said he had not heard any complaints about the move. But he was emphatic that the religious affairs department still has a role after 2004. "I am very much for its continued existence," he declared. "We live at a time when lots of new movements are coming into Estonia. Some of them might be destructive. If control remains it will only be beneficial to the whole nation."

Meego Remmel, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, which unites a number of Protestant Churches, said that he welcomed the decision to transfer registration away from the Interior Ministry. "Registration was always a political issue," he told Keston from Tartu on 4 July. "The courts are independent and disconnected from the government - this gives the Churches a more neutral position." However, he said problems might arise under the new system. Remmel was not sure whether the religious affairs department should continue to exist after 2004. "There should be a contact point in the government - an office or a person - where churches can turn." He said it would be better to wait to see how the new system works before the government decides whether the office should continue to exist.

Speaking to Keston in April as the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia finally gained registration with the Interior Ministry after a battle lasting a decade (see KNS 18 April 2002), Father Toomas Hirvoja, secretary to the church synod, welcomed the law's transfer of registration from the Interior Ministry to a court. "It is important that registration of religious organisations will be handled by a judicial rather than an executive authority," he declared. "This will make the process more neutral."

At present there are 593 registered religious organisations of all types. Nine are church hierarchical bodies, eight are associations or unions of congregations and 73 are independent congregations (the majority being Christian but also including 2 Buddhist congregations, 4 Jewish congregations, 4 Baha'i congregations, 2 Muslim congregations, 1 Hare Krishna congregation and 1 community of local pre-Christian tradition). The rest are congregations linked to the headquarter bodies. A group of Satanists applied for registration as a religious community at the beginning of the year, but their application was returned as the paperwork had not been properly completed. "They have not reapplied," Ringvee noted.

The House of Taara and Mother Earth People - a union of congregations representing the indigenous pre-Christian Estonian religious tradition - has been unhappy at the definitions in the law which draw on Christian terminology for religious bodies.

Ringvee stressed that religious communities in Estonia are not obliged to register at all. "It's OK not to register - it's not compulsory," he told Keston. "Communities are free to choose how they operate." He said that if they do not register they cannot enter into contracts as a community, but may operate as individuals. They also cannot get tax-exempt status.

Until this year the Russian Orthodox Church - the second largest religious group - functioned without registration as a religious community, though several of its entities have had registration individually. Also without registration are one large congregation in the southern town of Valga, led by Pastor Nikolai Khirvuk, and several smaller congregations of the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists - which reject registration on principle in all the post Soviet republics where they operate. Unlike in some other former Soviet republics, they have not encountered any problem in Estonia over their refusal to register. (END)