Tuesday 2 November
CHALLENGES TO 1997 LAW ON RELIGION FINALLY REACH
RUSSIA'S
CONSTITUTIONAL COURT

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

On 21 October a preliminary hearing on the constitutionality of Article 27
Point 3 of the 1997 law on religion took place at Russia's Constitutional
Court. The challenge to the law was brought by the Jehovah's Witness
congregation in Yaroslavl and the 'Glorification' Pentecostal Church in
Khakassia

Article 27 Point 3 restricts the rights of religious organisations 'which
do not possess a document proving their existence on the corresponding
territory over the course of at least 15 years'. In a letter to
Constitutional Court judge VALERI ZORKIN, the Yeltsin administration's
plenipotentiary for human rights OLEG MIRONOV wrote: 'The law creates
norms
which in practice lead to discrimination against some confessions.'
According to ANDREI SEBENTSOV, adviser to the prime minister on
church-state relations, at least 12,000 of Russia's roughly 17,000
religious organisations (including 6,000 Orthodox, 1,500 Muslim, 140
Buddhist, 70 Jewish and others) could face mandatory curtailment of their
activities since they were registered only after 1990. These bodies were
unable to register earlier because, as recognised by the presidential
decree of 14 March 1996 'On Measures to Rehabilitate Clergy and Believers
Who Were Victims of Repression Without Basis', in Russia 15 years ago there
held sway a 'terror unleashed by the Bolshevik Party-Soviet regime against
clergy and believers of all confessions.'

In presenting their challenge to the 1997 Russian law on religion,
Jehovah's Witness elder VIKTOR GLADYSHEV explained that his
congregation in
Yaroslavl had existed since 1967, but was registered only in 1991: 'It was
officially recognised that we were persecuted, and we have been
rehabilitated.' The congregation began to experience problems only on 1
October 1997, the very day the law came into effect, he said, when Deputy
Smirnov of Yaroslavl City Duma asked the public prosecutor to examine their
activities. On 20 November 1997 the public prosecutor duly decreed that the
congregation should cease its violations of Article 27 Part 3 of the 1997
law. Following a further warning on 26 January 1998, which threatened to
file a court order to close the congregation, the Jehovah's Witnesses
turned to the Constitutional Court. Gladyshev told the court that their
preacher IGRER VERNER, a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany, was
obliged to leave the Russian Federation, and that even once the
congregation was reregistered in 1999, its member IL'YA SHCHUROV was
refused the right to alternative military service under the 15-year rule:
'The public prosecutor's office told us that they had to follow the law to
the letter.'

Lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses ARTUR LEONTYEV concluded from
Gladyshev's statement that the court was not examining a theoretical
question, but a practical one: 'whether this point of the law is a weapon
to suppress innate human rights.' The fact that Preacher Verner had been
compelled to curtail his service to the congregation, he said, was clearly
a violation of human rights, as was the fact that the congregation 'was
warned on pain of being liquidated that they could not use their own
literature. And this sword of Damocles is hanging over everyone.'

Representing the 'Glorification' Pentecostal Church, ANATOLI
PCHELINTSEV
said that this congregation has also experienced practical application of
the law: 'The public prosecutor decreed that the church did not have the
right to preach in hospitals, to set up means of mass media or to invite
foreign missionaries and foreign citizens.' According to Pchelintsev, a
'sensible compromise' was suggested in the guidelines for the
implementation of the law issued by the Ministry of Justice on 16 February
1998 - incorporation in a centralised religious organisation for groups
with less than 15 years' official existence on Russian territory: 'However,
the guidelines are not law, but the position of the executive organs of
power. Although they attempt to soften an anticonstitutional law, they are
frequently ignored in practice.'

GALINA KRYLOVA, the second lawyer representing Glorification Church,
agreed
that the law was not open for discussion by organs of the executive branch.
However, with respect to the 'sensible compromise' of joining a
centralised religious organisation, she remarked: 'Organisations which used
to be independent have had to change their charters and register as local
organisations of centralised ones or they would have lost their right to
normal existence. But legally religious organisations should decide
themselves what form their existence is to take. According to Point 16 of
the Vienna Convention a state is obliged to respect the right of religious
organisations to organise themselves in accordance with their hierarchical
structure. But they do not have any choice - they must either enter a
centralised structure or not exist in a meaningful way.'

The first to speak on behalf of the1997 law was VALERI LAZAREV,
permanent
member of the State Duma in the Constitutional Court. He declared: 'The law
is within the constitution and its terms are justified. It was approved by
the majority of confessions.' Although President Yeltsin had not supported
the law initially, he said, his Duma representative had later argued in its
favour, and so the law was nevertheless the culmination of joint
consideration by the State Duma, the Council of the Federation and the
president.

According to Lazarev: 'The rights of the individual and the citizen are one
thing and the rights of an organisation are another - we need to separate
the wheat from the chaff. The rights of the individual and the citizen may
be realised without entering an organisation. When I ask the Holy Trinity
for something - or Allah, if it is for my Tatar friends - then I don't need
any intermediaries.'

The rights of religious organisations, said Lazarev, may and should be
restricted: 'Our legislator was guided by the European Parliament directive
not to grant the status of a religious organisation automatically and so
deliberately applied restrictions. The right to form an organisation is not
among those which may not be restricted - according to Article 9 of the
European Convention on Human Rights, for example, such a restriction may be
"in the interests of public order". Thus, in order to obtain the status of
a religious organisation, a group must exist for 15 years, to become a
Russian (Rossiisky) organisation, 50 years. It needs to be shown that a
group of ten people are not just following their own interests.' That a
group of just ten people could aspire to create a religious organisation
was, in Lazarev's view, 'a step too far towards pseudodemocracy':
'Religions are made over centuries! The state is obliged to place any
organisation in doubt.'

Representing the Council of the Federation - the upper house of Russia's
parliament - VIKTOR ULYANISHCHEV also made a firm distinction
between the
right of citizens to freedom of worship and 'the right to engage in some
kind of financial or other activity': 'Only a citizen can believe in God,
not an organisation. A state has the right to deprive an organisation of
rights.' In this context, he remarked, Christianity did not initially have
the status of a legal personality, but the Christian faith still developed
from it. (One of the judges did not agree with this point and quipped
'Thanks to persecution!') In addition, Ulyanishchev told the court how 'the
Reformation in Europe began with the protest of Luther against the sale of
indulgences by the Catholic Church', which he described as a 'tragic
example of confusing recognition of the status of legal personality and the
spiritual rights of the citizen.' His conclusion from all of this was: 'The
challenges by Glorification Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses result from
an incorrect interpretation of the law and are groundless.'

Representing the directorate of the Council of the Federation, NIKOLAI
VOROBYEV was also cautious towards religious organisations: 'Religion acts
upon the human psyche. In the case of non-traditional religions, it makes
sense to wait and see how a doctrine affects people.' During this process,
he maintained, 'believers must be aware that all power comes from God, as
laws thus come from God they should be endured.'

Judge Valeri Zorkin was more interested to know the purpose of limiting
rights and the degree to which the restrictions in Article 27 Point 3 were
appropriate. In reply, Lazarev cited Article 13 Point 5 of the Constitution
of the Russian Federation: 'undermining of security´┐Ż incitement of
religious hatred.' In his view, 'new religious organisations fog the minds
of citizens, and this has serious consequences. The 15-year period allows
us to select appropriate means to fight against whatever hides behind such
organisations. The 1997 law responds to the complicated social situation
which has arisen in relation to the growth of new religious trends - I
think that our plaintiffs are against many of its points as they distribute
literature which departs from social norms and sound thinking.'

When Judge Zorkin made the comment that political parties did not need 15
years to obtain registration, Lazarev replied: 'We are talking about
internal emotions here! Religious consciousness, once it enters a person's
head, is very serious, more serious than politics.'

VALERI BORSHCHEV, who had opposed the 1997 law in his capacity as
deputy
chairman of the Duma's committee on religion, gave different reasons for
the adoption of the 15-year requirement: 'The 15 years came from elsewhere,
by analogy with the Lithuanian law - but in that law a group needs 25 years
to become a traditional religion and the right of legal personality is
retained. This article was not discussed by the working group.' He called
the provision 'a serious violation of human rights.'

Speaking as one who has been a practising Orthodox Christian since
childhood, Borshchev told the court: 'The distinction between the rights of
a believer and rights of an organisation is erroneous - all confessions
prescribe collective prayer. The existence of a religious organisation is
not its problem but mine. I must go to confession and take communion at
least four times a year and I cannot do that without an organisation.
Without religious literature I cannot read prayers. And that is not the
activity of a religious organisation, but my religious obligation.
Education is not a question of social organisations - religious education
is a necessary condition for the realisation of the rights of the believer.'

Sebentsov briefly summarised the Russian government's position: 'Human
rights are restricted here. A number of restrictions are closely linked
with the 15-year period. The law was applied correctly by the public
prosecutor and could be applied to any organisation created in the period
1985-97.' The alternative suggestion of entering a centralised religious
organisation, he thought, was 'absurd. If one organisation was created ten
years ago and another yesterday, but the latter is supported by a
centralised organisation, then they are obviously not on an equal footing.'

Whereas NATALYA POVERENOVA, representative of the general public
prosecutor, categorically denied that the public prosecutors had
incorrectly applied the law, ALEKSANDR KUDRYAVTSEV, head of the
registration department of religious organisations at the Ministry of
Justice told the judge that the law had been 'incorrectly applied.' The
public prosecutors' demands had not been in accordance with the law, he
said, and so there could have been appeals against them 'in the usual way,
and not through the Constitutional Court.' When the judge asked for a more
detailed explanation, he responded: 'It's all there in the guidelines,
they're not some worthless piece of paper, but are subject to application,
and it was on the basis of that document that these organisations were
reregistered.' (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999