SPECIAL REPORT - RUSSIA: Are Religious Organs Equal Before the Law?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 25 July 2002

Russia's 1993 Constitution declares that the country is a secular state, and that religious associations are equal before the law. Yet latterly, there have been complaints that Russia's state institutions are becoming markedly less secular and that, in the sphere of social service, the law is not being applied to all religious organisations in equal measure. In an attempt to gauge the extent to which this is the case, Keston News Service recently questioned a variety of religious representatives in the two Volga republics of Tatarstan and Mari-El about their experiences in the fields of state education and prison ministry.

STATE EDUCATION

In accordance with Russia's 1997 law on religion, religious organisations may teach religion to schoolchildren outside the framework of the school curriculum at the request of their parents (Article 5, Part 4), while the state is to ensure "the secular character of education" (Article 4, Part 2).

Speaking to Keston in the Mari-El capital Ioshkar-Ola on 31 May, however, the republic's official in charge of religious affairs, Valentina Kutasova, said that the current drive to introduce religious education into state schools emanates not from parents, but from the Russian Orthodox Church. "They are trying to resolve the issue from above," she said, and pointed to the Moscow Patriarchate's 2 August 1999 concordat-style agreement with the Russian Ministry of Education. Kutasova insisted that, notwithstanding this agreement, the introduction of religious education into Mari schools could take place only with parental permission. While she did not think that the introduction of a subject such as "Orthodox Culture" would provoke significant opposition - "above all Orthodoxy is culture" - she maintained that Islamic and Mari pagan culture would have to be introduced alongside it: "We don't all live in separate worlds."

Kutasova told Keston that, while the history of Mari culture, which has close links with paganism, is already taught in the republic's schools, local pagan priests, or karts, do not have access to pupils. On 31 May, a claimant to the title of head kart, Aleksei Yakimov, complained to Keston that the same did not apply to Orthodox priests, who were granted access to kindergartens in order to baptise the children. "The children don't know what is happening and the grandparents are often opposed," he protested. "Christianity shouldn't be in the kindergartens according to the law."

Speaking to Keston on 31 May, Bishop Ioann (Timofeyev) of Ioshkar-Ola and Mari-El said that the Russian Orthodox Church was indeed trying to introduce its morality programmes into schools, but maintained that, despite the agreement between the Patriarchate and the Ministry of Education, the authorities "put up obstructions in the provinces". The Finnish pastor of Ioshkar-Ola's Lutheran parish Juho Valiaho and his wife Anu suggested, however, that it was possible to introduce religious education into schools if one took an indirect approach. "Religious propaganda is forbidden in schools," they remarked to Keston on 2 June, "but we can say we are talking about Finnish culture - the Bible is culture, culture is also faith."

It is this approach - and similarly not in response to parental demand - which is seeing the introduction of a form of religious education into schools in neighbouring Tatarstan. On 25 May Orthodox nun Mother Mariya Borisova told Keston in the Tatar capital Kazan that the local education department used to operate "a silent boycott" of the Russian Orthodox Church, but that this had "completely changed" over the course of the past year. In the autumn of 2001 and the spring of this year, she reported, the local education minister had invited her and a local mullah to deliver a series of lectures on the religious elements of culture to secondary school teachers of ninth-grade pupils in one district of Kazan. Mother Mariya said that she had lectured on the Christian basis of European culture, covering subjects such as icons, church architecture and "wherever knowledge of the Gospel is necessary to understand culture". Once observers from the education department "saw that I wasn't trying to drag people into church," she said, she was asked to write a textbook on what she had taught so that the teachers could repeat it in their schools.

One Protestant pastor in Kazan told Keston of his strikingly different experience of access to schools, however. "If we go into schools we aren't allowed to talk about the Gospel," he remarked. "There is a ban." Although administering humanitarian aid to schools is possible, he said, "if they find out your organisation is Christian they won't even let you in to do that".

Speaking to Keston on 28 May, chairman of Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs Renat Nabiyev was adamant that religious education should be permitted in schools only outside the compulsory curriculum. He acknowledged that attempts were continuing to introduce Orthodox and Islamic culture as school subjects, but considered their introduction acceptable only if what was taught was purely informational. "There shouldn't be rites or propaganda of religion."

PRISON MINISTRY

According to the 1997 law on religion, religious rites may be conducted in state institutions such as hospitals, children's homes, old people's homes and prisons at the request of the citizens there (Article 16, Part 3). Article 18, Part 3, however, states that where the charitable activities of religious organisations are concerned (typically involving humanitarian aid to such institutions), the state must co-operate with and provide support to religious organisations.

In Kazan, several Protestants reported few difficulties in gaining access to prisons, with the only reason for denial being if there had been a recent escape and a subsequent tightening of security. Mother Mariya Borisova, however, complained to Keston of how the Orthodox had been "chased out" of one special detention centre for young offenders. "We were too active, probably," she said. "There were some who wanted to be baptised and we took along a priest. The police officers there said that parental permission was needed for baptism as the inmates were minors, and that they did not want to be held responsible should there be any complaints."

In neighbouring Mari-El, the situation appears to be quite different. On 1 June, Baptist pastor Timofei Gerega told Keston that in 2001 his church had been barred for the second time from the local Novotroitsky Young Offenders Institution. According to Gerega, some 100 of the 180 inmates had shown interest in the Baptist ministry, while only about 15 in the Orthodox one. The head of the institution, he said, had explained to him that, while he did not see any benefit in the presence of the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox had complained about the Baptists to the local justice minister, who had subsequently told the head of the institution that he would be sacked if he did not expel the Baptists.

Pastor Gennadi Sharyov of Ioshkar-Ola Christian Centre reported a similar experience. "The authorities started to prevent us from going into prisons from about 1997," he told Keston on 2 June. "We have the right to go there according to the law, but in practice they say, 'We don't need you, we will work only with the Orthodox.'" (END)