Thursday 26 November


by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service

The constitutional court case challenging Russia's 1997 law restoring state control over religious life will not be decided until the middle of the year 2000 or later, a high-ranking official in the Yeltsin administration told a conference in Moscow this week. Presidential aide ANDREI LOGINOV, who played a key role last year in drafting the law behind closed doors and in rushing it through the parliament with a minimum of discussion, told a meeting of about 200 federal and local officials hosted by Moscow's Slavic Centre for Law and Justice that there was no chance that the case would be decided anytime in the near future. It appears that Loginov was signalling that the executive branch will not be pushing for a quick resolution of the issue - contrary to the hopes of many of the law's critics, who hoped that at least its controversial '15-year rule' could be annulled in the near future. Thus, unless the government radically changes course, even the law's most repressive sections will probably still be legally operative on 1 January 2000 - the deadline for reregistration of all existing religious organisations and the date at which some human-rights activists fear a new intensification of pressures against minority congregations.

Attendees at the conference, which included many of the local and provincial officials who have been appointed in recent years to regulate religious activities, reacted favourably to calls by federal officials such as ANDREI SEBENTSOV, adviser to PRIME MINISTER PRIMAKOV on religious affairs, for the reestablishment of a federal agency specialising in church-state relations. The last such agency was the Council for Religious Affairs of the Soviet period, the former employees of which include many of this week's attendees. (END)

Friday 27 November


by Tatyana Titova and Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

Judge VASILI NECHAYEV of Russia's Supreme Court has blocked efforts by provincial authorities in southwestern Siberia to close an embattled Lutheran mission. The judge's decision on 24 November overturned a previous decision of Khakassia's Supreme Court., but the Lutherans are sure that legal efforts against them will continue at the provincial level. Provincial functionaries led by NIKOLAI VOLKOV, top official for church-state relations in Siberia's Khakassia Republic, are so opposed to the Lutherans that they are even preventing them from distributing humanitarian aid, and they seem to have found the weakest points in the Lutherans´┐Ż legal position.

While formally deciding in favour of the Lutheran mission led by pastor PAVEL ZAYAKIN, the judge questioned him and his lawyers ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV and VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY closely about the 1996 'assembly' ('sobraniye') which formally founded the mission. Only five of the ten 'founders' were physically present at this gathering, though the others signed the document which the assembly voted to accept. Zayakin stressed that the mission included congregations in both Tuim and Vlasev, and that it served five smaller communities as well. 'The assembly did not take place in one room,' he said. But Ryakhovsky admitted under questioning that the minutes of the assembly had 'deceived' Khakassia's Ministry of Justice.

Several well-informed sources told Keston that a key element in the Lutherans' victory in the Russian Supreme Court was the fact that the mission is one of the plaintiffs in Pchelintsev's and Ryakhovsky's appeal to the Constitutional Court to strike down major portions of the 1997 law on religion as unconstitutional. According to these sources, the authorities want to minimise the number of violations of their rights which the plaintiffs can cite, in order to maximise the chances that the new law will be upheld.

Volkov and other provincial officials have argued that since the ten 'founders' ('uchrediteli') of the Lutheran mission were not all full-fledged, baptised and confirmed Lutherans at the time that the mission's pastor Zayakin registered it, the registration was invalid. Zayakin has countered that the state has no right to enforce the internal canons of the Lutheran church or to send officials of security agencies to

people's homes to interrogate them about their religious lives, as was done in Khakassia. (According to an affidavit from one of the mission's founders, LYUDMILA MELNIKOVA, when the mayor of Tuim visited her he said that the mission should be closed because its pastor was an 'agent of American imperialism'.) The Lutherans and their lawyers cited Article 29 of the Russian constitution, which forbids officials to question citizens about their religious beliefs.

Local authorities have rejected Zayakin's claim that the mission is the legal heir of a Lutheran congregation which was founded in the area in the 1940s. Zayakin told Keston that in March the procuracy for Khakassia's Shira district sent a letter to local hospitals and schools ordering them not to allow the Lutherans to conduct missionary activities on their sites. One hospital administrator, he said, had warned that the Lutherans might poison schoolchildren. The Lutherans cancelled a planned shipment of humanitarian aid after it became clear that they would not be allowed to distribute it.

Zayakin's mentor, pastor VSEVELOD LYTKIN from Novosibirsk, told Keston that in retrospect he now wished that the mission had done what independent 'initsiativniki' Baptists usually do, i.e. register the church building as the property as one of its members. It would be better to do without registration altogether in order to preserve the mission's independence, he said.

Zayakin said that the Lutheran mission had excellent relations with Khakassia's Orthodox diocese. But if the local officials succeeded in closing the mission, then ironically the district's main source of humanitarian aid might become the charismatic 'Proslavleniye' ('Glorification') church in the provincial capital of Abakan, which theologically is more alien to Orthodoxy than is the Lutheran mission. (END)

Tuesday 24 November


by Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

The city authorities in Rostov-on-Don are seeking strict adherence to Russia's 1997 law on freedom of conscience. Religious organisations which have not existed for the 15-year period specified in the law are therefore `banned from hosting foreign missionaries and handling humanitarian aid', the specialist on contact with religious organisations in the city administration, VLADIMIR POPOV, told a Keston representative. In addition, the city authorities are trying - in an unpublished measure - to ban the rental of public buildings to religious organisations that have not existed for 15 years, which for the most part means Protestants.

At the end of September, the Rostov Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith, a Pentecostal congregation, was deprived of the right to rent premises in a house of culture belonging to the Rostselmash factory. On 2 November representatives of the church met the house of culture's director and the head of administration in the Pervomaisky district of the city where the house of culture is located. Since this meeting, all attempts to persuade the administration to allow the church to continue to meet there have ended in failure. The church now rents temporary premises which are too small to hold all of the church's 400 members.

In a 24 September letter to the Rostov church, the head of administration in Pervomaisky district of Rostov, ALEKSEI DYKAN, justified his refusal to allow the premises to be used by pointing to Article 16, point 2 of the law adopted a year ago. But in fact, this point declares that services may be held in cult buildings belonging to religious organisations and `in other places provided to religious organisations for these purposes'. Thus it would seem that these words of the law do not at all prohibit the rental of premises to representatives of various religious affiliations.

On 5 November, after numerous appeals from the Pentecostals, Dykan officially replied that the district administration did not interfere in the affairs of religious groups and that the Rostov Church must resolve the question of renting the premises with the owners alone. A letter was issued by the deputy head of the city administration, YURI BALAKHNIN, expressing similar views. His reply to the Pentecostals declared that their church should try to find alternative premises in case the management refused to rent out the house of culture.

On 27 October the Rostov church had received a reply from the deputy governor of the Rostov region, ALEKSANDR BEDRIK, which explained that religious organisations were not banned from renting premises. This in effect was the provincial government's seal of approval on the church's request to conclude a rental agreement with the Rostselmash house of culture. In the Pentecostals' conflict over renting the house of culture, regional officials at least did not support the officials of the city administration.

The pastor of the Rostov Church, VLADIMIR KHVALOV, told Keston in an interview that city officials had declared in a meeting that renting the house of culture was the latter's business, and that no-one directly refused to rent the premises. In Khvalov's words, `the tip of the iceberg is radiant, but the lower part is no good at all'. Khvalov told Keston that the house of culture's director received constant telephone calls from the administrations of the city and of the local district not to allow `sectarians' to use the premises. The pastor believes there is an unpublished agreement that rental to religious organisations must be approved by the city administration. `The officials say that things have to be approved by them and refuse to rent, while at the same time they say it is not their business,' Khvalov told Keston.

Keston sought to gain an explanation from the director of the Rostselmash house of culture, who gave her first name and patronymic as LYUBOV GEORGIYEVNA, without giving her family name. She told Keston that the house of culture did not have separate legal status and was part of the factory, but that it had now been handed to the city administration as security for the factory's debts. She maintained that the authorities would not give in at all over the Pentecostals, and that had the factory not been in such a difficult economic position the Rostov Church would be able to rent premises in the house of culture without hindrance.

She blamed the refusal to rent out the premises on the pitiful state of the factory and the difficult economic situation, although rental usually brings houses of culture money. She did not explain whether or not it would be profitable to renounce the lucrative agreement with the Pentecostal church to hold Sunday services there.

Keston also spoke with the administrator of the Shield of Faith charismatic Christian church in Rostov, TAMARA SMORODINA, on the difficulties of renting premises for church use. She told a Keston representative that after the city authorities tried to ban a `Festival of Jesus' in Rostov in September, the rent charged to the Pentecostals for premises they used in a house of culture had been raised sharply. Smorodina told Keston that officials constantly referred to a certain law adopted by the Rostov region. According to this law, the text of which no-one has seen, no religious organisation may rent premises without the agreement of the regional and city administrations. In addition, she said, the authorities had the right to set the level of the rent.

As an illustration of the differences between regional and city officials, Smorodina quoted the example of the de facto ban on the Festival of Jesus, for which, on 12-13 September, the Swedish charismatic KARL GUSTAV SEVERIN had arrived in Rostov. Smorodina told Keston that the authorities originally believed `we would do nothing, but we staged a festival'. The city officials banned this on the grounds that the church had not existed for 15 years and did not have the right to invite foreigners. For his part the specialist for contacts with religious organisations for Rostov region, VITALI BREZHNEV, even organised a meeting for the Shield of Faith church's pastor VALENTIN MARCHENKO with the deputy governor, Aleksandr Bedrik, to sort out the problem. According to Smorodina, `the city wouldn't offer any compromise, and the region could not and would not insist' although it took a milder and more tolerant attitude to religion. She is certain that in the wake of all these events, the church will encounter problems with the authorities.

Pastor Khvalov of the Pentecostal Church likewise confirmed that he had excellent relations with Brezhnev, the specialist for contacts with religious organisations for Rostov region. He sees Vladimir Popov, the advisor on religion to the city administration, as the chief instigator of the persecution of the Protestants of Rostov.

ANDREI DERGACH, the director of Youth with a Mission, a group attached to the Rostov Church, told Keston that the authorities in the city district had been exerting unofficial pressure, although the director of the house of culture wanted the church to return there. All the officials needed do to carry out their policy was to make phone calls, he said. For example, Dergach reported, on 7 November they were banned from meeting together in the temporary premises which they rent in a construction college. Just an hour before the service the director of the college received a call from the city administration. He was informed that in view of the 7 November holiday the service had to be banned. Dergach likewise added that the officials referred to some law on renting premises to religious denominations, but this has not yet been adopted and is unlikely to be adopted at all.

In order to find out more about the unknown `law' cited by officials, Keston turned to the plenipotentiaries for contacts with religious organisations for Rostov region and Rostov city in an attempt to sift out what was fantasy and what was fact.

Vitali Brezhnev, who is a scholar and teacher at Rostov University as well as the specialist on church-state relations for the Rostov region, told Keston that no law had been adopted at the regional level and that it was unlikely that any law would be adopted. Brezhnev presented himself as a supporter of equal treatment of all religions and as an official advocate of a `pluralistic' position. He had for example defended local Catholics and Lutherans from the Cossacks after they had suffered aggression in the region. From Keston's conversations with Rostov's Protestant leaders it was clear that Brezhnev commanded their respect.

Vladimir Popov, who serves both as a Cossack ataman (chieftan) and as chairman of the city's committee for Cossack affairs and for religion, clearly promotes a harsher and more interventionist policy. He told Keston that such a law on renting premises to religious organisations had not been discussed on a regional level as that was a matter handled by the local authorities. He believed that premises might be rented only to religious organisations, not to groups without the status of a legal person. There should be restrictions for religious organisations, Popov maintained, only if they had not reregistered their statutes or if new legal developments not envisaged by their statutes had emerged, such as the opening of shops or the sale of literature.

On the level of the city, according to Popov, there had only been discussion of a regulation (`polozheniye') which would establish that not all groups should be granted the right to conduct public events, especially religious organisations that had not existed for 15 years. Such organisations are mainly Protestant, even including those which are officially registered as religious organisations. In practice, as Popov told Keston, an unofficial, verbal procedure of requiring the authorities' agreement has been introduced in the city, where it is now necessary to inform the city administration of events of such a nature. A religious group has to get its plans to hold events approved by the city administration, and five days before the beginning of the proposed event the officials must give their answer, positive or negative. This regulation functions unofficially, but officials refer to these rules as if they were formal law and for this reason many Protestants believe that such a regulation (`postanovleniye') exists.

Popov complained to Keston's representative about the charismatics of the Shield of Faith church, which had not existed for 15 years and which, he said, had violated the law by inviting a foreigner to the Festival of Jesus. Popov reported that the police had drawn up a statement on the violation of the law and had transmitted the materials to the procuracy, but the procuracy had proved unable to get to the bottom of the case. `It is difficult to prove a violation of the law by a religious organisation,' Popov added. Asked by Keston how the policy of the mayor's office is put into practice, Popov replied that `we try to influence the leaders by persuasion'.

In his interview with Keston's representative, Popov spoke of the need to control all actions undertaken by religious organisations. He believes it is undesirable that they try to conduct events without prior arrangement, since `sectarians', by which he means all non-Orthodox, `must be cut off from publicity'.

In the Rostov region the city authorities are trying by all means at their disposal to bring Protestants under their control and to restrict their growth, while the regional administration takes a more tolerant attitude to the non-Orthodox. However, the regional authorities are unable to stand in the way of the harsh policy of the city as this policy appeals both to Cossack loyalties and to the idea of defending the `national faith' - Orthodoxy. However, Orthodoxy itself has different strands. For example, one enthusiastic participant in the Festival of Jesus was the Orthodox priest FATHER VLADIMIR KORYAK, a member of the Free Russian Orthodox Church. (END)