Issue 6, Article 17, 21 June 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Wednesday 21 June 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

The head of the Catholic Apostolic Administration for Western Siberia, Bishop
JOSEPH WERTH, no longer intends to pursue with the authorities the 11 May
raid by the local tax police on the Jesuit-run Inigo Centre in the western
Siberian city of Novosibirsk (see KNS 30 May 2000). Speaking to Keston
News Service by telephone from Novosibirsk on 19 June, Bishop Werth
explained that the regional tax police had now returned all the material seized
during their search of the Jesuit-run Centre.

Interviewed by Keston on 14 June, ANNA LOPARYNA of Novosibirsk
regional department for relations with religious organisations maintained that
the tax police had initially made `certain demands' of the Inigo Centre but had
later apologised for their action. Asked by Keston whether the tax police had
therefore made a mistake, she replied, `Yes, they probably got something
confused.' However, she did not know what the original demands made by the
tax police were, explaining that this was not a matter for her department: `We
don't interfere because the state keeps out of religious affairs. The Catholics
didn't ask for our help so we didn't get involved.'

The director of the Inigo Centre, Father JOZEF MACHA, confirmed to Keston
on 16 June that the `business with the police' was now over. `They returned
everything that they took and sent us a letter on 1 June saying that they had not
found anything against us.' However, he maintained that the Jesuits had
received no apology from the tax police. `It seems out of the question that they
should apologise - it's just not their style.'

The raid on the Catholic centre came as a surprise to many observers, as
Novosibirsk had previously gained a reputation for being among the least
repressive regions in Russia for religious minorities; it also has one of the
Moscow Patriarchate's most open hierarchs in Archbishop SERGI
(SOKOLOV). Asked by Keston why he thought the raid had taken place,
Father Macha was similarly at a loss: `We have no idea what the tax police
were looking for - it is not clear to us [why the raid took place] and it was never
spelled out.'

On 16 June Radiotserkov news agency reported that Father Macha had
demanded that the Novosibirsk regional tax police return all the material seized
in the operation, make a formal apology and conduct an internal inquiry with
the aim of bringing to book those guilty of violation of the 1997 law on
religion. Speaking to Keston on 16 June, however, Father Macha said that he
did not intend to take any further steps, as it was for Bishop Werth to decide
whether to pursue the matter with the authorities. He continued to challenge the
legality of the search, however: `We are a religious organisation, and only the
Ministry of Justice has the right to monitor our activities according to the Law
on Freedom of Conscience.' Keston was unable to find any reference in the
1997 law on religion detailing whether the tax police or any other state body
was authorised to conduct searches of religious organisations.

When Keston asked SERGEI NAZAROV of the Novosibirsk regional tax
police whether the tax authorities were empowered to search religious
organisations, he gave a long pause before replying: `Well, religious activity
might be their main activity, but all organisations have to rely on some
financial means, on which they should pay tax.' Speaking to Keston on 16 June,
Nazarov was initially reluctant to comment and suggested that Keston talk to
the Jesuits to discover why the raid had taken place. When Keston told him that
they had no idea, he remarked `They're being sly' before providing his
explanation of events.

According to Nazarov the raid - which he described as a `regular check-up' -
had taken place because the Inigo Centre was among a very few of
Novosibirsk's 150 religious organisations not to have submitted any
documentation about their financial activities to the local tax organs. The tax
organs had consequently requested that his department carry out the search:
`That's our job'. The primary aim of the search, he maintained, had been to
ascertain whether, in the absence of any record, the Catholics were in fact
carrying out financial activity. `In all likelihood they are renting premises,
paying wages for assistants and so forth, and so they have to pay taxes on that.'
Nazarov maintained that only documentation had been taken during the search,
which he said had now been returned. `It has all been resolved - we wrote to
them saying that we did not find any violations of the law and thanked them for
their cooperation.'

It is unclear which is more indicative of the new presidential administration's
policy towards the Catholic Church: the Novosibirsk raid or President
VLADIMIR PUTIN's recent visit to the Vatican. However, writing in the 6
June edition of nationalist Orthodox newspaper Radonezh in praise of Putin's
failure to invite Pope JOHN PAUL II to Russia during his Vatican visit, V.
PETRUSHKO's additional disquiet at Jesuit activities in Novosibirsk
highlights the fact that both these developments have met with the approval of
those in the Russian Orthodox Church opposed to a Catholic presence in
Russia. `Having insinuated themselves into the structures of Novosibirsk
University,' laments Petrushko, `the Jesuits started proselytising on a large
scale. The result has been the transformation of Novosibirsk into the bastion of
Catholicism in Russia.' (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.