Issue 9, Article 13, 19 September 2000

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


In its latest major investigation, Keston News Service has uncovered a series of local laws on religion in Russia�s national republics and oblasts [regions] that violate rights to religious freedom and contradict even the restrictive 1997 federal law on religion - even though some were adopted after the federal law. A law adopted in Tatarstan last year - which an official told Keston has not been revoked - allows the liquidation for any religious organisation that failed to gain re-registration by 1 July 2000.

Confusion reigns among local officials over whether these local laws on religion are still in force - many maintain that they are - and what steps the federal authorities in Moscow have taken to try to bring them into line with the federal law on religion. Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to stamp out unconstitutional local laws, but in the area of religion that goal has yet to be achieved.

Tuesday 19 September 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Over one third of Russia's 89 provincial governments enacted or considered laws or executive orders in the field of religion between 1993 and 1997. The federal law on religion of October 1997 supersedes these laws or orders. Article 2 Part 2 of the 1997 law specifies that the rights to freedom of conscience and worship are regulated by federal law, that any other such laws enacted in the Russian Federation must be consistent with federal law, and that the 1997 law is to prevail should it be contradicted by laws on religion adopted by subjects of the Federation.

Have provincial laws on religion been abandoned since the adoption of the federal law in 1997? The power struggle between Russia's regions and the centre has intensified in recent months. President VLADIMIR PUTIN's stated intentions to strengthen the vertical axis of power in Russia were reflected in General Prosecutor VLADIMIR USTINOV's order to regional public prosecutors in May to bring local laws into line with federal laws by the end of June 2000. In the light of these developments, Keston contacted officials in a random selection of those regions with their own laws on religion to gain an impression of their current status (see below).

In late 1996 YURI ZUYEV, dean of the religious studies department of the Russian Academy of State Service attached to the President of the Russian Federation, was able to give the total number of local laws on religion as about 30. Contacted by Keston on 11 September, however, he was not aware of the latest developments in the field. Although he believed that some more laws had been passed since the adoption of the federal law in 1997, he was unable to say where. On 11 September VIKTOR KOROLYOV, head of the department for registration of religious organisations at the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, told Keston that a June 2000 presidential decree - 'On Federal Centres of Subjects of the Federation' � would now bring all local laws into line with federal laws, including the 30 local laws on religion pronounced unconstitutional by the prosecutor general.

NATIONAL REPUBLICS: Local laws in Russia�s national republics tend to cover the whole range of issues relating to religion, duplicating almost entirely the issues covered by the federal law on religion.

KALMYKIA: In response to General Prosecutor Ustinov's order, President KIRSAN ILYUMZHINOV of Kalmykia (approximately 1150 miles south-east of Moscow) announced on 9 June that all his republic's laws had been brought into line with federal laws. The Kalmyk law 'On Freedom of Conscience and Worship', adopted on 31 October 1995, differs from the 1997 federal law in a few notable respects. A religious organisation does not need to have been in existence for a minimum period to be legally recognised as such, it may retain the legal status it enjoyed prior to the adoption of the law if its charter does not contradict any part of it (in which case it must reregister within six months of the adoption of the law) and representatives of foreign religious organisations may operate in Kalmykia only if invited by a religious organisation registered in the republic.

On 8 September executive director of the Kalmyk Department for Religious Affairs MIKHAIL BURNINOV confirmed to Keston that a law entitled 'On Freedom of Conscience and Creed' was in force in the republic, but stressed that there were 'no discrepancies' between it and the federal law. He claimed that it had been adopted by the People's Khural (parliament) in December 1997, and that the 1995 law no longer existed. He maintained, however, that the basic principles in both regional laws were the same as in the federal law: 'separation of the church from the state, secular education, maximum rights to confessions and believers.' The move to bring the law into line with the federal law, he said, had not been at Moscow's insistence: 'We always operate without prompting.' If, as he claimed, there were no differences between the new local law and the federal one, asked Keston, why was it necessary to have a local law at all? Burninov answered that many federal subjects had their own constitutions and laws other than on religion: 'In this way nationalities are given due respect.' If local laws were used to fight against the federal centre, he commented, then this was ultimately to 'the detriment of the rights and interests of those national entities.'

BURYATIA: Back on 7 October 1999 head of the Nationalities and Religion Department of the Republic of Buryatia (3500 miles east of Moscow) VALENTINA ALEKSEYEVA told Keston that Moscow - she was unable to be more precise - had requested that the Buryat local law on religion be brought into line with the federal law by the end of 1999. She also claimed that there were 'some contradictions' between the federal and local law ('On Religious Activity on the Territory of the Republic of Buryatia', dated 23 December 1997), but that they were 'nothing serious'.

In reality, the Buryat law differs sharply from the federal law in a number of respects. It distinguishes between confessions which are considered traditional or historical to Buryatia � listed as the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia [in fact the successor to the officially-approved Soviet-era Buddhist organisation and not a confession at all], Old Belief, Orthodoxy and shamanism � and others, which are considered new or non-traditional. Before registering, new or non-traditional and foreign religious organisations must pass consideration by an expert consultative committee for religious affairs. In order to conduct missionary work, or 'the spreading of a belief', they must additionally obtain special permission from the expert consultative committee for a set programme of activity. The cost of registration and permission for missionary work � both of which are granted for a maximum of one year � is one hundred times the minimum wage in the republic.

Asked on 7 September for an update on the progress of the reworking of the Buryat law on religion, Alekseyeva told Keston that it was 'still in the People's Khural' (parliament). She explained that the law had had to be presented to the public prosecutor of Buryatia and the department of justice for comment � and that they had both recommended that it be brought into line with the federal law. She was unable to specify which elements of the law would have to be changed. When Keston asked whether the 1997 local law was still valid, she replied that it was not 'because you cannot use a law while it is being reworked'. In addition, she commented, there was disagreement among deputies in the People's Khural over whether a local law on religion was necessary or whether the federal one sufficed.

TATARSTAN: Whereas Burninov and Alekseyeva were at pains to stress that their local laws on religion did not differ markedly from the federal one, IGOR KORNILOV of the Council for Religious Affairs of Tatarstan (approximately 500 miles east of Moscow) made no secret of the fact that in his republic the opposite was the case. Speaking to Keston on 8 September, he confirmed that 'On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations', adopted on 21 July 1999, was both in force and differed from the federal law. Perhaps most notably, it states that there may be only one centralised organisation for Muslims (the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan) and Russian Orthodox (Kazan diocese). In addition, 'the spread of new creeds� may be restricted by law', a 'state organ of the Republic of Tatarstan for Religious Affairs' must give permission for a religious organisation to use cultural, leisure and other public sites for rites and ceremonies, and organisations must reregister by 1 July 2000, after which they may be liquidated by court order.

Although crystal clear in his comments regarding the existence of the law and its powers, Kornilov became vague when asked whether there had been moves to bring it into line with the federal law, before volunteering 'there have certainly been no complaints from religious organisations'. He was again precise when stating that the reregistration deadline of 1 July had not been extended and that not all organisations had been reregistered by that date, adding that they would not automatically be liquidated and 'were all functioning - for the moment'. When Keston asked if the fact that only one centralised organisation was permitted for Muslims and Russian Orthodox meant that others had been refused registration, however, he responded, 'Well, there haven't been any others yet�' and claimed not to know anything more about it: 'We don't deal with registration�'

Asked why Tatarstan had passed a law after the federal one had been introduced, Kornilov replied that 'a lot of work' had gone into preparing it prior to the adoption of the federal law, including extensive consultations with religious organisations. A local law was necessary, he maintained, because a federal law could not take into account nuances in different subjects of the federation: 'You can't treat Ryazan like Tatarstan.'

Kornilov pointed out to Keston that other regions besides Tatarstan had adopted laws on religion, and specified another predominantly Muslim area, Bashkortostan (approximately 1000 miles east of Moscow).

BASHKORTOSTAN: On 19 June Keston spoke to GUZAR SIDIKOVA, a member of Bashkortostan's Council for Religious Affairs who is also involved in the drawing-up of legislation for the republic. She confirmed that Bashkortostan had adopted the law 'On Freedom of Conscience and Worship' after the federal law came into effect, on 16 July 1998. She additionally told Keston that there had been no amendments to it since it had been passed, and that it did not differ substantially from the federal law. Asked how it differed, she said that, for example, the preamble to the law pledged respect for the role played by all traditional religions in the republic, but placed Islam first and Christianity second, 'because Islam has been here 1000 years but Christianity for only about four centuries.' (The law does indeed largely follow the federal law, with the notable difference that religious education is not permitted in state schools.) She claimed that the federal authorities had not demanded any changes to the law: 'They know our law well - in fact, we received positive comments from them about the work of our Council for Religious Affairs.' She was unable to tell Keston which federal agency had made these comments.

KABARDINO-BALKARIA: Another attempt to introduce a local law on religion since the adoption of the federal law has taken place in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (1170 miles south of Moscow), according to PAVEL POGODIN, a pastor of a Baptist congregation in the capital Nalchik. While in Moscow on 8 September he told Keston that, as a result of his dealings with the republic's Department for Religious Affairs attached to the Ministry of Culture, he had ascertained that the local law contradicted the federal law on various points, most strikingly in that a religious organisation must have 50 members to qualify for registration. In addition, said Pogodin, there was no provision for a religious group as in the federal law � so that any organisation with fewer than 50 members would be illegal. However, he said that the law was withdrawn almost immediately after its adoption last year and was currently being reworked to bring it into line with the federal law by the end of 2000. Pogodin thought that the initiative for this originated within the administration of the republic and not in Moscow. In his view, the local law was not functioning in practice and he had not heard of any consequences from it. Keston was unable to get through to Kabardino-Balkaria by telephone to make further enquiries.

RUSSIAN OBLASTS: Almost all the local laws on religion which were passed in oblasts (rather than in national republics, where they tend to deal with religious freedom per se) regulate foreign missionary activity.

TYUMEN OBLAST: One example is Tyumen (1340 miles east of Moscow), which adopted 'On the Missionary Activity of Foreign Religious Missions' on 26 May 1995. Features of this law include a registration fee for foreign missions of ten times the minimum wage, a maximum period of one year for missionary activity if the application for registration is successful, and a fine of 100 times the minimum wage for missionary activity without registration. In addition, the registering organ must grant permission before missionary activity can be conducted in religious or other public buildings.

On 11 September the chairman of the Committee for Nationality Issues and Harmonisation of Relations Between Nationalities in Tyumen, ANATOLY USHAKOV, told Keston that the 1995 law was no longer in use due to the adoption of the federal law in 1997, which had 'removed many queries.' He claimed that there had not been any challenge whatsoever to the law by the federal authorities: 'There were no collisions with federal power over this law.' (In fact, there was an appeal to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation in December 1995 which was later dismissed.) A new bill to replace the 1995 law was currently in the regional Duma, he said, and was due to be considered within the next month or two.

There were still some issues left unanswered by the federal law, Ushakov maintained, and so these were addressed by the new local bill. Specifically, he explained, it should not be the exclusive right of religious organisations to invite foreign religious workers � as in the federal law � 'even if a religious organisation is not registered it should have the right to invite'. In addition, he said, the federal law had not clarified what should happen if a religious organisation registered in one subject of the federation moved into another: 'If someone comes to Tyumen from outside � say, from Bashkortostan � we want to know about it, like in civilised countries.' Although there was no formal accreditation procedure for such organisations in the new bill, he maintained, they would be obliged to meet representatives of his committee for a 'familiarising chat' (oznakomitel'naya beseda) and to submit copies of their charter and founding documents.

Strikingly, Keston obtained an entirely different view of the status of Tyumen's local law on religion from SVETLANA PAVLOVA at the oblast's Committee for Culture. Contacted by telephone on 11 September, she said that the 1995 law was definitely still in force: 'It regulates and limits the activity of religious missions.' When Keston asked for examples of its use, she replied: 'If a mission of an alien religion wishes to use a stadium they can be prohibited, or it can be used against the White Brotherhood sect � they're very active here.' She claimed to be unable to comment further, as strictly speaking the Committee for Culture did not deal with religious issues. (END)

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