Monday 6 March 2000
RUSSIA: FIRST VORONEZH RELIGIOUS GROUP LIQUIDATED - DOZEN
MORE TO FOLLOW?

by Geraldine Fagan and Mikhail Zherebyatev, Keston News Service

As the first court hearing in the cases brought against 13 religious organisations in the
central Russian Voronezh region ruled that a religious organisation should be
liquidated, justice officials in Voronezh have continued to justify their moves to close
down the religious organisations - 12 Christian and one Jewish - for having failed to
re-register before the deadline of the end of 1999 (see KNS 21 February 2000).
Officials told Keston that they were unaware of legislative moves in Moscow to
extend the deadline for re-registration of religious organisations.

The first of the 13 cases to reach court was that of a Pentecostal congregation in Ertil
(population approximately 12,000), led by Pastor VIKTOR VDAVENKO, against
whom liquidation proceedings were initiated on 22 February. Speaking to Keston
News Service by telephone on 2 March, Vdavenko confirmed that the Voronezh
department of justice had requested that the local court in Ertil cease the legal
activities of the church because it had not managed to reregister before 31 December
1999. Vdavenko reported that he had just telephoned the court and found that it had
already pronounced its verdict: `they have already liquidated us.' Adding that the
Duma was in the process of extending the reregistration deadline until the end of
2000, Vdavenko noted sadly that the local authorities in Voronezh `weren't taking any
notice'.

If the extension to the re-registration deadline became law, he said, the congregation
would address a formal statement to the court in the hope that this would overturn the
verdict. If not, then they would `maybe try to reregister somehow'. On reflection,
however, he commented `liquidation is forever.' Vdavenko was not concerned that the
authorities or police might take any concrete measures now that the organisation had
been liquidated: `Of course we will continue.' However, he admitted that `it will be
more difficult to spread Christianity outside the law. We won't be able to go into
children's homes or social institutions, or conduct evangelisation or mass services. It
will be difficult to do anything beyond meeting in private houses.' The congregation
of 100, he said, already met `in three sections' in private homes because it did not have
a prayer house: `We have written to the town administration many times asking for
the use of suitable premises - even a cellar - but we are told there are none available.
They don't need our serving Christ.' Vdavenko told Keston that the hostile attitude
towards them originated with the regional administration, on which the Orthodox
Church had `a very strong influence'.

Vdavenko's congregation is a member of VLADIMIR MURZA's �Union of Christians
of Evangelical Faith in Russia�, but the Union's Moscow headquarters did not appear
to be aware of the situation when Keston rang on 2 March, nor did they have a
telephone number for any of their four congregations in Voronezh region. A member
of the Pentecostal congregation of Pastor VIKTOR GOLEV in the neighbouring city
of Lipetsk who provided Keston with contact details was likewise unaware
of the situation, commenting `it's a long way from us'.

VYACHESLAV KRYUCHKOV, head of the department for registration of social and
religious organisations in the justice administration of Voronezh region, told Keston
on 1 March that he has received no communication (either written or verbal) about the
State Duma's decision of 18 February to extend the reregistration deadline (see KNS
24 February 2000). He also professed himself unaware of whether the Ertil court had
ruled on the liquidation application brought by the justice administration, or about the
progress of legal hearings relating to the other 12 organisations.

At the end of January, the department for the registration of social and religious
groups at the justice administration of Voronezh region initiated in the regional courts
- in those places where religious groups had not made it through re-registration by 31
December 1999 - legal suits to wind up 13 religious groups active in the region. The
organisations under threat are one Jewish community, OVERO (in the town of
Voronezh), one Lutheran - under the Ingrian jurisdiction of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church (in the town of Borisoglebsk), the regional administrative centre and four
communities of the Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, a missionary centre and
five Pentecostal communities, belonging to various denominations (one autonomous
mission in Rossosh, three in Murza's union, in Peski, Khrenovo and Ertil, and one in
Sergei Ryakhovsky's �Russian Unified Fellowship of Christiains of the Evangelical
Faith� in Voronezh itself). Two of the 13 organisations under threat of closure -
Evangelical Christian/Baptist communities in the towns of Voronezh and Rossosh -
own their own places of worship.

Although several monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church had not achieved re-
registration in Voronezh region by 31 December 1999, applications for legal action
issued by the regional justice administration for the removal of these organisations'
rights as juridical persons have not reached court.

On 15 February Kryuchkov explained to Keston that the Voronezh regional justice
administration took this step after taking into account the circumstances of re-
registration of social organisations over the past year. When re-registration of social
groups was being completed, the Russian Ministry of Justice likewise promised to
extend the deadline (with a resolution by the State Duma), but this did not happen.
This time, too, by the expiry of the re-registration deadline for religious groups in line
with the 1997 Russian law on freedom of conscience the State Duma (at least until 18
February of this year) had not made amendments to the law which would have
allowed the re-registration deadline to be extended. Similarly, the Ministry of Justice
gave no written clarification about how to deal with those organisations that had not
re-registered. `We have been operating strictly in accordance with the law, which
makes provision for precisely these measures in the case of groups that have not been
re-registered.' Kryuchkov resolutely declined to give a direct answer to the question of
whether any entities of the Russian Orthodox Church had yet to be re-registered.

Kryuchkov stressed in particular that not one religious organisation that had presented
its documents to the Voronezh justice administration in time had been refused re-
registration. Moreover, the justice administration was simultaneously registering
newly-formed organisations, and only one of these - the True Orthodox Church - had
been refused (see KNS 3 March 2000). Two of 13 Pentecostal organisations had been
registered as newly-formed rather than re-registered, Kryuchkov declared. He said that
the supervising body had never complained about the activity of the organisations that
had not been re-registered throughout their existence. Therefore, if these organisations
were active, they were fully within their rights (despite the fact that legal actions were
underway) to apply simultaneously for registration as newly-formed organisations.

On 1 March a spokesperson at the office of head of Voronezh regional administration
IVAN SHABANOV told Keston that he did not know about the situation concerning
the 13 religious organisations facing liquidation. When Keston explained that the
organisations had not managed to reregister under the 1997 law on religion, he
asserted that `everyone must obey the law'. Although Keston had said only that the 13
faced liquidation, he remarked indignantly: `It's not true what you say - that they are
going to be banned. No one is being banned. They may not be able to carry out
missionary activity, but they will still be able to conduct their religious rites.'

Speaking to Keston on 1 March, press secretary to Voronezh region's Committee for
the Affairs of Social and Religious Organisations LIDIYA KUZNETSOVA also
appeared to be unaware of the situation. When Keston again explained that 13
religious organisations were facing liquidation, she remarked: `I don't have that data.'
She then commented that as far as she knew the deadline for reregistration had been
extended to the end of the year, `so they will probably be reregistered'. She explained
that there was `a whole procedure' for reregistration which had to be followed, and
said that she suspected that the organisations concerned may not have submitted all
the necessary documentation on time, before reiterating that they would have until the
end of the year to do so. When Keston then mentioned the court proceedings against
the Pentecostals in Ertil, she said she had heard nothing about it but promised `to
check it out'. She remarked that it was possible that the Pentecostals `may have
committed some kind of violation of the law.' Finally, she assured Keston, `We aren't
going to liquidate anyone.'

The presbyter of the first church of the Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in
Voronezh, OLEG ALEKSEYEV, told Keston that in 1999, two Baptist communities
in Voronezh region were re-registered independently (separately from each other).
Because just two, and not three organisations had been legally registered, there was no
legal basis for re-registering the regional organisation of the Union. The leadership of
the regional Union then took a private decision to prepare documents for nine
communities in all and one regional organisation to be simultaneously re-registered
and registered as new, including the original four which received the rights of a
juridical person in line with the provisions of the 1990 law.

The Voronezh religious organisations that belong to the Union have now submitted
applications to register their communities as newly-formed after representatives of the
Union chose to comply with the regional justice administration's demand for the
registration of the four communities and the regional administrative centre as newly-
formed organisations. The applications were accepted as a step towards registration.

Other religious leaders seem unconcerned by the liquidation threats. On 2 March,
IOSIF KORNFELD, head of one of the two previously registered Jewish communities
of Voronezh - VERO (Jewish religious organisation of Voronezh) - told Keston that
OVERO (Regional Jewish religious organisation of Voronezh) would not be re-
registered, because other than one person, who the representatives of the central
Jewish organisations of Russia had refused to work with, `it did not represent anyone'.
Before the re-registration of VERO last year, Kornfeld stressed, the juridical rebirth of
OVERO might have made sense, because the latter was registered in 1992 as a
regional organisation, while VERO was classed only as a city organisation. But when
in 1999 VERO received the right to work throughout the region, such a need
disappeared.

MARIYA SUOYANEM, secretary at the St Petersburg headquarters of the Ingrian
Evangelical-Lutheran Church, told Keston on 1 March that the church leadership was
aware that their parish in Borisoglebsk was among the 13 religious organisations in
Voronezh facing liquidation. However, she thought that the parish was currently
trying to obtain reregistration since, as far as she knew, the reregistration deadline had
been extended until the end of the year. According to Suoyanem, the church
leadership was not concerned that the parish might be liquidated before it managed to
reregister. Deacon MIKHAIL STARITOV of the Borisoglebsk parish was not
available for comment when Keston rang.

However, some religious communities that have been re-registered in Voronezh report
opposition to their activity from the local Russian Orthodox Church more than from
the authorities. The head of the Voronezh-based Pentecostal mission `Centre of
Spiritual Service' ANDREI BASHMAKOV told Keston on 2 March that his
organisation had reregistered and was not experiencing any problems from the local
authorities. A member of the Moscow-based �Association of Christian Missions of
Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals)� headed by IVAN FEDOTOV, he
explained that the mission broadcast two programmes on local television, ran a
rehabilitation programme for drug addicts and was planning to open a radio station.
However, he commented that the mission had `of course' encountered opposition from
the Russian Orthodox Church: `They are trying to close down our programmes.'
(END)