Monday 20 March 2000
RUSSIA: COURT HEARING FOR SECOND VORONEZH RELIGIOUS
COMMUNITY SLATED FOR LIQUIDATION

by Mikhail Zherebyatev, Keston News Service

The case of the second of thirteen religious organisations that the local justice
authorities in Voronezh region are seeking to have liquidated reached court on
15 March. However, the court in the town of Voronezh adjourned the hearing
in the case of the regional headquarters of the Union of Evangelical
Christians/Baptists (UECB) until 23 March.

The justice authorities in Voronezh region of central European Russia have
taken a harsh line against religious minority communities that failed to achieve
re-registration before the 31 December 1999 deadline as required by Russia's
1997 law on religion (Russian Orthodox communities that failed to gain re-
registration have not been threatened with liquidation). The decision at the end
of January to begin court action to liquidate 13 religious communities in the
region - 12 of them Protestant, one Jewish - is unprecedented in the Russian
Federation. More surprising, perhaps, is the local authorities' apparent decision
to continue at least some of these actions at a time when the bill to extend the
re-registration deadline to the end of 2000 seems poised for signature into law
by Russia's acting president VLADIMIR PUTIN (see KNS 17 March 2000);
however, some believe the Voronezh justice authorities may decide to hold
back.

The official closure of the first of the thirteen religious organisations in the
Voronezh region occurred on 22 February, when Ertil district court liquidated a
congregation that belongs to the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith
(Pentecostals) on the basis of evidence supplied by the registering authorities
(see KNS 6 March 2000).

At the court hearing on 15 March in the Zheleznodorozhny district court in
Voronezh, the senior presbyter for the Voronezh region, PYOTR
MEREICHIK, representing the Evangelical Christian/Baptist community in
court, informed judge GALINA BABKINA that the State Duma had passed an
amendment to the law on religion extending the deadline for the reregistration
of religious organisations until the end of 2000. The judge telephoned the
regional department of justice and was informed that the department had no
official documentation confirming this. During the hearing, which lasted 40
minutes, it also became clear that the regional justice department had given the
judge registration documents dating from 1991, although the UECB regional
headquarters had resubmitted its statutes in 1992. Moreover the judge
discovered that Mereichikļæ½s name, who took up his office as senior presbyter at
the end of 1999, did not appear on the documentation. The judge ordered that
the case be adjourned until 23 March so that the missing documents could be
collected.

At the same time as they are challenging the liquidation suits against the
regional headquarters and four of their communities in court, the Evangelical
Christians/Baptists are seeking to register all five entities as newly-established
religious organisations. Mereichik told Keston on 15 March that at the
beginning of March (when liquidation applications had already been submitted
to the courts) the head of the department for the registration of social and
religious organisations at the Voronezh regional department of justice,
VYACHESLAV KRYUCHKOV, received registration documents from eight
Evangelical Christian/Baptist communities and the regional headquarters for
his consideration. Among those organisations applying for registration as
newly-formed organisations were the four communities and the regional
headquarters of the UECB whose liquidation was being sought through the
courts. Kryuchkov had earlier informed Keston that, given that his department
had received no complaints about the activities of the organisations currently
being liquidated, they could start the registration process afresh as newly-
formed religious organisations regardless of the fact that the liquidation suits
were being considered by the courts. By contrast, a leading expert in the legal
section at the regional department of justice and head of the media relations
department of the Voronezh administration, ANDREI SHEVTSOV, told
Keston on 14 March that by law, organisations which were in the process of
liquidation could only apply for registration as newly-established organisations
after the court had issued its ruling.

The regional department of justice has to submit liquidation suits to the local
courts where each of the 13 religious organisations it has targeted are based.
Interestingly, some courts have still not received liquidation applications from
the department of justice. This is the case with the district court in the town of
Borisoglebsk, which is due to consider the suit to liquidate a community of the
Ingrian Lutheran Church. Some believe that the adjournment of the case
against the UECB regional headquarters at the 15 March hearing and the fact
that the head of the department for the registration of social and religious
organisations has stated his willingness to register liquidated organisations
without waiting for a court ruling may indicate that the Voronezh regional
department of justice will not pursue outstanding cases through the courts.
Otherwise a legal conflict may occur which would take many months to
resolve. On the one hand it may be that the amendment extending the deadline
for re-registration (should it be signed into law) may not be applied
retrospectively to those court decisions which were made before the law was
amended and published. On the other hand the new version of the law may
encourage the leaders of the liquidated communities to demand a review of
their cases by the courts.

Some believe that the Federal Ministry of Justice in Moscow is putting
considerable pressure on the regional department of justice. ANATOLI
PCHELINTSEV, a lawyer and director of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for
Law and Justice, told Keston on 17 March that the overly zealous activity of
the Voronezh Regional Department of Justice was causing the Federal Ministry
serious concern. (END)