KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 28 June 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

ESTONIA: WILL NEW LAW DENY LEGAL STATUS TO
FOREIGN-LED FAITHS? Some religious faiths have expressed cocern
about a new law on churches and congregations which - if approved by
the president - will deny legal status to religious organisations which are
led from abroad. The Russian Orthodox Church - which does not have
legal status in Estonia - has been the most vocal in its complaints, but
Adventists, Bahais, Jehovah's Witnesses and some Protestants have told
Keston News Service that they object to this provision also. An official
of the Interior Ministry described the article barring foreign-led
organisations from gaining legal status as `legal nonsense in many ways',
as it affects only churches and unions of congregations, not single
congregations.

ESTONIA: WILL NEW LAW DENY LEGAL STATUS TO
FOREIGN-LED FAITHS?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Several religious faiths have expressed their concern about the new law
on churches and congregations, adopted by parliament on 13 June, which
- if approved by the president - will deny legal status to religious
organisations (apart from individual congregations) which are led from
abroad. The diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church - which does not
have legal status in Estonia - has been the most vocal in its complaints,
but Adventists, Bahais, Jehovah's Witnesses and some Protestants have
told Keston News Service that they object to this provision also.

Article 14 (3) of the new law declares: `The holder of the register does
not register a church or a union of congregations whose permanent or
temporary administrative or economic management takes place or whose
decisions need affirmation by the leader or administration abroad.' (The
law defines a `church' as a religious group that adheres to the three creeds
of the Christian faith, a reference to the Lutherans, the Catholics and the
Orthodox, while a `union' must have at least three individual
congregations of any faith.) Article 14 (4) states that these provisions do
not encompass doctrinal issues, while Article 14 (5) adds that the
provisions do not extend to religious associations operating in Estonia
according to international contracts, a reference to the Catholic Church,
which operates under an agreement between the Estonian state and the
Vatican.

Epp Alatalu, spokeswoman for President Lennart Meri, told Keston from
Tallinn on 28 June that the president has until 4 July to sign or reject the
law. `Different churches and congregations have written to the president
asking him not to promulgate the law,' she declared. `There have been no
letters supporting the law, but people tend to write only when they
oppose something.' She said the president was seeking advice from
experts on religious liberty as to whether to sign the law or not and would
be helped in his decision by a meeting about the new law today (28 June)
of the Council of Churches, which brings together eight of the major
Christian denominations.

Ringo Ringvee, an official of the Department of Religious Affairs in the
Interior Ministry told Keston from Tallinn on 25 June that the new law
will come into force only once the president has signed it. He was clearly
sceptical about the article barring foreign-led organisations from gaining
legal status, describing it as `legal nonsense in many ways' as it affects
only churches and unions of congregations, not single congregations. `If
you form a congregation it could be led from abroad, if you form a union
of congregations or a church (in the legal definition) and your
administrative or economic decisions need approval from abroad,
registration would be denied. So it does not affect the Latter Day Saints
[Mormons], as they have one congregation in Estonia. It does not affect
the Old Believers either, because as far as I know their economic and
administrative decisions do not need approval from any centre or leader
abroad. With the Seventh Day Adventists it may become complicated as
they belong to the Baltic Union of the Adventist Church, and follow
instructions from abroad.'

Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, the spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate's
Department for External Church Relations, sharply criticised the new
law, highlighting the provision banning the registration of foreign-led
churches. `This means the complete delegitimisation of our church
structure in that country,' he told a conference on religious freedom in
Moscow on 21 June

Several religious communities are appealing to the president over this
controversial provision of the new law. Tuno Jugar, the head of the
Adventist Church, told Keston from Tartu on 27 June that his Church had
written to President Meri asking him to stop the law and reconsider some
of its provisions. `We're a worldwide church and we depend on the
leadership abroad,' Jugar declared. `There is a danger we will lose legal
status if this law is adopted.' He declined to comment on why he believed
the law had been adopted.

Lembit Reile, legal advisor to the Jehovah's Witnesses, told Keston from
Tallinn on 28 June that his community will be sending the same letter to
the president that it had sent to the parliamentary justice commission
ahead of the parliamentary consideration complaining of `confusion' in
the wording of Article 14. `We don't like this provision,' Reile told
Keston. `All religions are worldwide. It is therefore difficult to define the
boundary between theological and administrative and financial
leadership. It is an artificial boundary.'

Reile said he did not think the Jehovah's Witnesses would lose legal
status if the new law was adopted, declaring that the community was
already abiding by civil law that requires all decisions in such
organisations to be taken within the country. `Our headquarters is in
Brooklyn, but we act within Estonia as the Jehovah's Witness Union.'

Foad Vojdani, general secretary of the Bahais' National Assembly in
Estonia, told Keston on 27 June that his community opposed Article 14
`absolutely', although he was not sure if his community would lose its
legal status. `Our world conference is in Haifa, but our national assembly
is here in Estonia. Bahai institutions in each country are autonomous.'
Vojdani was also concerned that the wording of the new law followed
Christian terminology, such as over `churches' and `priests', while he
claimed no more than fifteen per cent of the country was Christian.

The Baptist Union is less concerned by the new law. General secretary
Tarmo Kahr told Keston on 27 June that it `satisfies us and won't affect
us or obstruct our activity'. On Article 14 he declared: `All our leadership
is within Estonia. However, we are worried about the potential impact of
the article on other religious communities. It is not yet clear how this will
be implemented. It would be better to rewrite this article, although it is
important that religious movements function in Estonia legally.'

Similar views were expressed by Olav Parnamets, head of the Methodist
Church. `If we compare our church constitution with the new law, I can't
see there would be any hindrances to our work or registration, but we can
see it may affect other groups like the Russian Orthodox Church under
Moscow,' he told Keston from Tallinn on 27 June. `We would like to
have a situation where the state does not intervene in the affairs of
churches. Article 14 of the new law makes the situation worse.' He
believed the provisions of the article should not be applied to mainstream
religious communities, only to `dangerous cults', among whom he
identified Christian Scientists and Satanists `whose activities are
obviously destructive'.

However, Parnamets was pleased that the new law gave no privileges to
any particular `historic' churches, as had been mooted in earlier years.
`This law is more democratic as the Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic
Churches are not considered in essence state churches.'

Ringvee told Keston that the impetus for amending the 1993 law came
from the Justice Ministry. `The main reason for the new law was to take
into account new legal acts regarding the status of legal entities (the
General Part of the Civil Code, the Law on Non-profit Association Act
and others) and to transfer the existing Register of Churches,
Congregations, and Unions of Congregations from the administration of
executive power (the Ministry of Internal Affairs) to the authority of the
courts, where other registries of legal entities are, while simultaneously
preserving the register as a whole.'

Asked why the decision had been taken to introduce this article, Ringvee
declared: `This was a last minute decision to implement this by the
politicians,' and referred all enquiries to them. He also declined to
comment on whether President Meri was likely to sign the law. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.