Monday 21 February 2000

by Mikhail Zherebyatev, Keston News Service

Thirteen religious organisations in the Voronezh region of central European
Russia - ranging from Evangelical churches to a Jewish congregation - face
liquidation for failing to achieve re-registration by the deadline of the end of
last year. This is the biggest single move by local justice authorities since the
expiry of the deadline, although attempts have been made to close down
several individual churches, including the Church of Christ in the Chuvash
capital Cheboksary (see KNS 31 January 2000). It remains to be seen how the
vote on 18 February in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State
Duma, to extend the re-registration deadline (see separate KNS article) will
affect the moves to liquidate these thirteen religious communities.

The regional department of justice, based in Voronezh, initiated suits in the
local courts where the thirteen religious communities were based, calling on the
courts to liquidate them. The communities whose liquidation was being
demanded were the regional administrative centre and four congregations of
the Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, a missionary centre and five
communities belonging to various Pentecostal denominations, a parish in the
town of Borisoglebsk belonging to the jurisdiction of the Ingrian Evangelical-
Lutheran Church, and the Overo Jewish community in the town of Voronezh.

The first hearing against any of the communities was scheduled for 22
February in the district centre of Ertil, when the court of first instance is due to
hear the civil suit brought against a Pentecostal community belonging to the
Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith.

In an interview with Keston News Service, the head of the section that registers
social and religious associations in the Voronezh regional justice department,
VYACHESLAV KRYUCHKOV, explained why his department was initiating
the single biggest action in the Russian Federation to shut down religious
communities. In other regions of the Federation, Kryuchkov told Keston, the
authorities have not moved to liquidate religious communities that have failed
to achieve re-registration only because `they each have some 200 organisations
that have not been re-registered, while we have only thirteen'. However,
Kryuchkov declined to reveal to Keston how many communities of the
Moscow Patriarchate had failed to achieve re-registration in Voronezh region.
It is known that monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church have not yet been
re-registered as a model statute for monasteries has not yet been finalised.

It seems clear that minority religious communities - mostly Protestant Christian
- are being targeted by the Voronezh justice department. However, one local
Evangelical Christian activist, VALERI P. (he preferred that his full name not
be used), had an unexpected explanation. `In Voronezh there has been a growth
in Protestant communities,' he told Keston. `The liquidation at a stroke of
thirteen organisations would automatically lead to an improvement in the
proportion for the Moscow Patriarchate.' But the activist doubted whether the
justice department would succeed in court. `In the course of any judicial
consideration in the case to liquidate the religious societies, lawyers for the
defendant would be entitled to demand the registration documents of all
organisations which were due to have undergone re-registration. If it were
discovered that even one entity of the Voronezh Orthodox diocese had not
undergone re-registration, but was not being liquidated as the Protestants were,
then all thirteen cases would burst like soap bubbles.' (END)

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(c) Keston Institute 2000