RUSSIA: Top Religious Affairs Official Promoted or Fired?

by Geraldine Fagan and Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 28 October 2002

Rumours that one of Russia's top state officials dealing with religious affairs had been dismissed under the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate appeared to be partially substantiated earlier this month. On 4 October a decree signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov appointed one Harry Minkh as official government representative to the Federation Council, a position previously held by Andrei Sebentsov.

Sebentsov is also vice-chairman of the government's Commission for Religious Associations, and chairman of that body's working group, which is currently reviewing amendments to the 1997 law on religion. The activities of the latter body have attracted strong criticism from the head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who indicated at a January conference on church-state relations that he believed Sebentsov to be behind them.

Another key official dealing with religious affairs at the federal level, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev clarified to Keston News Service on 23 October that, while Minkh is indeed now official government representative to the Federation Council, Sebentsov has yet to be formally relieved of that post, and remains vice-chairman of the Commission for Religious Associations. Pointing out that he had been praised by Commission chairwoman, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, as recently as that body's last meeting on 18 October, Kudryavtsev insisted that the changes to Sebentsov's other post are "unrelated to religious affairs and the campaign against him in the Internet".

An Internet site ( maintained by Igor Ponkin's Institute for State-Confessional Relations and Law (ISCRL) has published several dozen items sharply criticising Sebentsov over recent months. One typical example is a May letter from an Orthodox priest in Yaroslavl to Deputy Prime Minister Matviyenko, which accuses Sebentsov of attacking the Russian Orthodox Church and justifying "Catholic and Protestant (Salvation Army) foreign religious expansion against Russia". The priest concludes that Sebentsov should be removed from his post of vice-chairman of the Commission for Religious Associations.

Speaking to Keston from his new office in the White House (Russian government building) on 24 October, Sebentsov dismissed everything written by Ponkin as "gibberish from start to finish". While he had yet to be appointed to a new position - possibly the head of the government department dealing with public enquiries - Sebentsov confirmed that he was still vice-chairman of the Commission for Religious Associations. Asked on 25 October whether he knew of Sebentsov's present status, Ponkin told Keston that it was of "little interest" to him. While he was aware of Minkh's new appointment, Ponkin has not published news of it on his Internet site.

Keston wondered whether the changes at the White House might be paving the way for the creation of a federal organ dealing with religious affairs, a likely candidate for the head of which would be Sebentsov. On 23 October Kudryavtsev commented that, while there would not be a ministry for religion, "there is the Commission attached to the government, in whose work representatives of various confessions participate. But the Commission meets, discusses and disperses. If there were a working organ attached to it, that would be able to operate with the authority of the government."

Speaking to Keston on 23 October, a lawyer specialising in the affairs of religious organisations, Anatoli Pchelintsev, commented that the creation of a federal organ dealing with religious affairs was now "highly probable", while an employee of the religious faculty of the Russian Academy for State Service predicted that there would be one within two years at most. Sebentsov was unable to confirm that there were plans to create such an organ. "The decision has not yet been made," he told Keston, "but I can't exclude the possibility." He has spoken publicly in favour, while the Moscow Patriarchate is staunchly opposed. (END)