Issue 2, Article 23, 24 February 2000


by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

On 18 February the State Duma of the Russian Federation considered a bill
extending the deadline for the re-registration of religious organisations to 31
December 2000 and passed it in all three readings at once. The bill now goes to
the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, and then
to the acting president VLADIMIR PUTIN to be signed into law. The deadline
for re-registering religious organisations - as required under the revised version
of the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations passed in 1997
- expired on 31 December 1999, with many religious organisations failing to
gain re-registration in time.

In his speech to the Duma on 18 February, the bill's sponsor VIKTOR
ZORKALTSEV, the chairman of the Duma's Committee for the affairs of
social associations and religious organisations, told deputies that Muslim
religious associations and the Russian Orthodox Church are in the worst
position regarding re-registration and this evidently contributed to the deputies
giving their approval to the bill.

Zorkaltsev's adviser ALI VYACHESLAV POLOSIN reports that 367 votes
were cast in favour and only one against. `At first the opinion was expressed
that this bill favours totalitarian sects,' he told Keston in an interview on 21
February, a view strongly argued by VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY, the head of
the Liberal Democratic Party. `Zhirnovsky put forward this view during the
debate, but then the objective data on the progress of re-registration showed
that the bill is needed by all denominations and especially by the Orthodox.
Then Zhirinovsky switched his attack to Zorkaltsev personally and his
committee - "the Duma is considering only animals and believers, what we
need is a law on political parties", the adoption of which, according to
Zhirinovsky, is being deliberately delayed by Zorkaltsev.'

Polosin outlined the next stage of the procedure: `On 23 February the bill will
receive its final confirmation when it is signed by the chairman of the Duma
and passed to the Federation Council for consideration. Even if it does not get
onto the agenda for the meeting of the Federation Council, it will automatically
be approved in two weeks. Then it will go to the President for signature and
after study by experts for two weeks it should then be signed or not signed. In
other words, within a month it will most likely be approved and come into

Polosin believes the bill will face no problems in the Federation Council. `I do
not see any reason to oppose the extension of the deadline,' he told Keston.
Polosin notes that a similar amendment to extend the re-registration deadline
for social organisations failed, `because everybody attacked social
organisations, since they hinder the absolute rule of the authorities in the
provinces, especially human rights organisations, and they had four years to re-
register.' But he believes religious organisations are regarded differently.
`Religious organisations had only two years and believers are less well
educated, so they can be forgiven more easily for missing the deadline. Many
organisations simply failed to submit applications or they formulated their
applications so badly that they were returned to be rewritten. For example even
the Muslim central bodies have not been reregistered because they formulated
their applications so badly. Only one of the Muslim spiritual administrations
has been re-registered and the Ministry of Justice is moaning: "Could you
really not find a decent lawyer in this time!"'

The idea of extending the deadline for re-registration, which was first proposed
in spring 1999 by then Minister of Justice PAVEL KRASHENINNIKOV, was
supported by the President's office and the government. Polosin maintained
that the extension of the deadline was supported by the country's major
denominations, including the Russian Orthodox Church, at a meeting of the
Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations on 20
October 1999. This is not surprising considering that only the Moscow
Patriarchate and the diocesan adminstrations of the Russian Orthodox Church
have been re-registered while, according to Polosin's information, the
monasteries and the departments of the synod have not been, and the progress
in re-registering Orthodox parishes is also very poor. He cited the example of
Ivanovo region, where less than half the parishes have been re-registered.

Lawyer VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY, director of the Moscow-based Slavic
Centre for Law and Justice, told Keston on 21 February that religious
organisations definitely welcome the deputies' decision. He had information
that `very many' organisations had not managed to re-register and the number
of legal cases involving the closure of religious organisations was growing
daily - to date his Centre was monitoring six cases. `There are various reasons
why organisations have not re-registered: many of them were refused by the
Justice department, and after 1 January corrected applications have no longer
been accepted; others didn't get round to it. Now we have four cases in Kaluga
region, where four hearings were set for 18 February in the Kaluga district
court to close religious organisations for not having re-registered. They are a
Christian organisation, the Kaluga Christian Centre, and three Baptist churches.
Of one of these churches I was told that the elderly pastor didn't know it was
necessary to re-register. The officials of the Justice department have not been
working properly, they could have summoned the churches and told them the
situation, but on the other hand the Baptist Union could also have informed its
members. There is also the Lutheran parish in Voronezh, where the court
hearing was postponed till March and the Charismatic church in Cheboksary,
where a supplementary claim was submitted demanding proof that the church
had not been re-registered: that makes six cases.'

Keston has heard complaints from churches that have not been re-registered
that they have had problems exercising their legal rights and other obstacles
have been put in their way, such as the lease of premises being refused. As
ALEKSANDR KUDRYAVTSEV, the head of the department for registration
of religious organisations at the Ministry of Justice, explained to Keston: `An
organisation is deprived of the rights of a legal person only when it is excluded
from the state register of legal persons in consequence of a court decision
which has come into force. This is an example of judicial ignorance on the part
of local officials.' As Ryakhovsky put it: `Until an organisation has been closed
down it has full legal rights. This is the same as with the 15-year rule: officials
tried to limit the rights of churches, demanding confirmation of membership of
a centralised organisation or 15 years of existence in the locality in question.
This should not be confirmed by officials but only by judicial
bodies.' (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 2000