KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 10 May 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.

AFFAIRS IMMINENT? Speculation over the creation of a successor to
the Soviet-era anti-religious Council for Religious Affairs, abolished in
1990, has recently increased. Advocates of such an organ, which is
opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church, believe that it is necessary to
curb what they see as the excessive influence of the Orthodox Church on
secular authority arguing that `Freedom does not mean absence of
control.' But even these advocates cannot say how a CRA successor
would resist the lure of religious organisations with money or influence
looking for preferential treatment and admit that the organ�s neutrality
could not be guaranteed, saying `anything is possible, of course'.


by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Russia's 1990 law on religion ruled that `no executive organs of state
control are to be set up which are specifically intended to deal with
questions relating to the realisation of citizens' rights to freedom of
conscience'. The Council for Religious Affairs (CRA), the Soviet-era
organ which controlled religious life, was thereby abolished and could
not be revived. Russia's current religion law contains no such provision,
however, and speculation over the creation of a successor body to the
CRA has increased markedly since its passage in 1997, especially as
almost every other CIS republic now has some sort of centralised body
devoted to religious affairs.

Those in favour of a CRA successor body maintain that religious affairs
in post-Soviet Russia have become unacceptably chaotic. `During the
Yeltsin era this was a neglected sphere left to run its own course,'
Veronika Kravchuk, a staff member of the religion faculty of the Russian
Academy of State Service, told Keston News Service on 15 March. The
lifting of controls with the introduction of the 1990 law did not lead to
the realisation of religious freedom, she maintained, but rather to
arbitrary rule in the provinces, typically involving oppression of non-
Orthodox by pro-Orthodox governors. A CRA successor body would
regulate this and so facilitate freedom of religion for all, she argued:
`Freedom does not mean absence of control (bezkontrolnost).'

Responsibility for dealing with religious issues at the federal level is
currently shared between four different organs - committees attached to
the president, the government and parliament, and the Ministry of Justice.
It is consequently impossible for the national authorities to manage
(`upravlyat') religious affairs effectively, director of the Moscow-based
Institute of Law and Justice, Anatoli Pchelintsev, maintained to Keston
on 27 March. In many subjects of the Russian Federation responsibility
for religious issues has by contrast been allocated to a single organ, he
said, such as the Department for Religious Affairs in Kalmykia. Since the
fragmented arrangement at the federal level in effect meant these
provincial bodies were not answerable to anyone except their local
governor, Pchelintsev argued, `the creation of a federal body is simply

A further argument for the creation of a CRA successor body was put
forward to Keston in March by an anonymous Moscow-based source
with a professional involvement in religious affairs. `Priests need to be
grabbed by the beard,' he argued, `if they take power they'll start another
revolution.' The source believed a CRA-type body would be a
mechanism to curb what he saw as the excessive influence of the Russian
Orthodox Church on secular authority.

The Orthodox Church currently leads the opposition to a federal body
regulating religious affairs. `The revival in one or other form of a state
organ controlling the activity of the Church or regulating its various ties
with different spheres of state and public life appears to have little
prospect,' Patriarch Aleksi II wrote in a letter to clergy and government
officials participating in a 17 November 2000 meeting to discuss church-
state relations. Although not referring to the CRA by name, he argued
that the experience of the Soviet period in particular `testifies to the
harmfulness of such an approach'.

Anatoli Krasikov, chairman of the Russian branch of the International
Religious Liberty Association, told Keston on 27 March he was also
categorically against the creation of a CRA successor body, maintaining
that such an organ would always tend to interfere in religious affairs.
Although acknowledging that in the short term a CRA-type body would
be staffed by `good people', he feared that in the long term `it could be
very dangerous', especially if the Communist Party returned to power.
Even were the communists to revive a CRA with repressive functions,
asked Keston, how did this future danger constitute an argument against a
more neutral regulatory organ at present? If a benign federal body with
responsibility for religious affairs already existed, explained Krasikov,
`the communists could easily transform it if they came to power and no
one would protest'. If they attempted to set it up anew, he maintained,
`there would be a major scandal'.

When Keston visited the corridor of offices occupied by Ukraine's CRA
successor body, the Committee for Religious Affairs, in September 2000,
its chairman Viktor Bondarenko rejected the charge that his department
bore any hallmarks of its Soviet-era predecessor. `Successive owners of
the same car will take it to different places,' he argued. `No one criticises
the current post of an ombudsman for human rights, although - had there
been one - an ombudsman for human rights in the Soviet Union would
undoubtedly have restricted them. The same is true of the CRA.'

Citing France and Spain as examples of democratic countries with state
departments devoted to religious affairs, Kravchuk and Pchelintsev also
maintained that a Russian successor to the CRA would not necessarily
adopt its functions. Pchelintsev even argued that, on the contrary, such a
body could `propagandise international religious freedom standards' by
informing provincial officials about these and drawing up bills to resolve
questions such as alternative military service.

Despite their criticism of arbitrariness by those in charge of religious
affairs at the provincial level, however, neither Kravchuk nor Pchelintsev
could suggest how a CRA successor body at the federal level would resist
the lure of religious organisations with money or influence looking for
preferential treatment. Both thought that representatives of religious
organisations would have to be excluded from its staff if it were to have
any chance of being unbiased. Pchelintsev additionally suggested that
guarantees ensuring the organ's neutrality could be formally written into
its functions, but admitted that `anything is possible, of course'. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.