Tuesday 13 October

PERM PENTECOSTALS RESIST FORCED REGISTRATION



by Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service



In a controversy which could set a major precedent for Russia's

most independent-minded religious minorities, the plenipotentiary

('upolnomochenny') for church-state relations in a city in Perm

oblast about 850 miles east of Moscow is demanding that a

Pentecostal congregation undergo formal state registration even

though the congregation would prefer to remain unregistered.

Backed by the local priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, the

plenipotentiary continues to press his demand even though the

local procuracy recently dropped all formal charges against the

congregation.



The Pentecostal congregation in the city of Osa, affiliated with

the Russian Association of Christian Missions of Christians of

the Evangelical Faith, has chosen to organise itself as a so-

called 'religious group' rather than as a 'religious

organisation'. Under Russia's 1997 law restoring state control

over religious life, only 'religious organisations' must be

registered and only they have the formal status of 'legal

personalities' with the right to own or rent property. The

Russian Association of Christian Ministries has a registered

centre in Perm city, the capital of Perm oblast, but as a matter

of basic theological principle it refuses to seek state

registration of its local congregations.



Several months ago Osa's official city newspaper launched a

series of articles attacking the Osa congregation led by pastor

VALERI MENSHIKOV. The articles, the authors of which included

officials of the local administration and procuracy, accused the

Pentecostals of being a closed 'sect', of subjecting people to

psychological pressures and of tearing them away from society.

The newspaper refused to give the Pentecostals a chance to

respond. One official of the procuracy, LILIYA SELIVANOVA,

insisted in one of the articles that the congregation must

undergo formal registration because it had more than ten members.

In response to a complaint from the mother of a 24-year old girl,

the procuracy conducted an investigation of the group's

activities-but Selivanova confirmed in an interview with Keston

that this investigation found no evidence of illegal activities.



In order to normalise its relations with the administration,

Selivanova told Keston, Menshikov's congregation would now be

required only to reach a new agreement on the rental of its place

of worship; the Perm centre of the Christians of the Evangelical

Faith could act as the formal party to this agreement, she said,

since the local congregation lacked the formal status of a 'legal

personality' and thus did not itself have the right to conclude

contracts. In addition to this, the procuracy had to be

convinced that Menshikov was indeed legally authorised by the

Perm centre to act on its behalf; Selivanova satisfied herself

of this on 5 October. She also withdrew her previous demand for

formal registration, since, as she put it, she did not find in

the 1997 law any specifications about how large or small the

membership of a 'religious group' must be.



Selivanova said that the press campaign against the Pentecostal

congregation had not been conducted under pressure from the city

administration, but rather the main role had been played by

personal appeals from citizens and by the 'anti-sect' position

of the local Orthodox priest. But the head of the Pentecostals'

Perm centre, ALEKSANDR VASECHKIN, expressed a quite different

view. He told Keston that the local authorities prefered not to

act by legal methods, and that the so-called 'appeals from

citizens' were false and had been inspired by the Osa city

administration. The Directorate of Justice, he said, had warned

him that if and when his centre received reregistration the

territory on which it would be specifically authorised to operate

would include only the city of Perm rather than the entire

oblast.



Vasechkin said that the local authorities did not accept the

Pentecostals' view that it was necessary to distinguish between

a local, independent religious group and the centre of the

Christians of the Evangelical Faith and were annoyed by the fact

that the charter of the Perm centre did not reflect their

opinion. The Pentecostals believe that the organisation of the

Perm centre and its relations with local religious groups were

their own internal affair, he said.



Menshikov, the head of the Osa congregation, told Keston that

although the procuracy was no longer publicly denouncing the

group, pressures were still coming only from the local

administration. He said that the head of the administration, the

plenipotentiary for church-state relations and the local Orthodox

priest were determined to expel the Pentecostal congregation from

Osa. The congregation now had more than 60 members and had begun

to build its own prayer house, he said--but it refused to seek

formal registration because this was a fundamental principle of

the Association of Christian Missions.



Osa's Orthodox priest, ARKHIMANDRITE VENIAMIN TREPALYUK,

expressed strongly negative views about the very existence of the

Pentecostal congregation. He told Keston that though legal ways

to liquidate this 'sect' had not yet been found, 'not everything

is so simple'. He said that the procurator had promised again

to resolve this matter. The administration for too long had

failed to concern itself with the activities of the 'sectarians',

he said.



The Osa city plenipotentiary for relations with religious

organisations, ALEKSANDR OKHOZIN, denied that he had any

connection with the press campaign against the Pentecostal

congregation. In an interview with Keston he said that

Menshikov's group would have to agree to a rental contract in

which the legal personality would be the Perm centre--and then

all documents would be in order. But even then, he insisted,

the Pentecostal congregation could not be considered a mere

religious group since the new law and the commentaries thereon

stated that more than ten people were needed to form a religious

organisation. If the Pentecostals continued to fail to apply for

state registration, he said, 'we will consider that they have

violated the law'. Asked by Keston why the procuracy

interpreted the law differently, he replied that this was their

problem. He said that ignorance of the law by the Pentecostals

or their deliberate disobedience of it would not spare them from

its application. 'Of course I am not Pontius Pilate, but I wash

my hands of this,' he said.



Asked by Keston to comment on the plenipotentiary's view, State

Duma aide LEV LEVINSON categorically stated that Okhozin's demand

that the religious group be registered 'grossly violates the

existing law; it is inconsistent with both the old law on freedom

of conscience and new 1997 law'. If a religious congregation had

more than ten members, he said, then it might voluntarily choose

to seek registration and obtain the rights of a legal personality

- but nobody had the right to force it to be registered. (END)