Thursday 16 March 2000
WHAT FUTURE FOR RUSSIA'S PROTESTANT UNIONS?

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

Russia's various Unions of Protestant congregations, which grew strongly in
the late 1990s, may be about to face a shake-up. Protestant leaders and lawyers
have told Keston News Service that the unions grew in popularity as a way for
congregations to protect themselves from hostile state officials seeking to deny
them reregistration under the 1997 religion law. Now that some of the
provisions have been softened by a Constitutional Court ruling last November
on the application of the law, congregations are beginning to leave the major
unions they joined out of pragmatic necessity and many smaller unions based
on doctrinal affinity may emerge. However, some believe that inertia and
conservatism among Russia's Protestant churches may keep the current
Protestant Unions largely unchanged.

The biggest of Russia's Protestant Unions are the Union of Evangelical
Christians/Baptists, led by PETR KONOVALCHIK with some 1,200 member
congregations, and two of the Pentecostal Unions, the Union of Christians of
Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals of the Russian Federation), led by VLADIMIR
MURZA, with some 1,300 member congregations, and the Russian Unified
Fellowship of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals), led by
SERGEI RYAKHOVSKY, with some 1,000 member congregations.

In the wake of the Constitutional Court decision, new procedural
recommendations for the application of several provisions of the religion law
were drawn up by the Department for the Affairs of Social and Religious
Organisations, with a list of examples of the application of the law in practice.
These were distributed at the end of last year to leaders of the regional agencies
of the Ministry of Justice for use in their practical work on the registration and
reregistration of religious organisations. Although recommendations of this
kind do not have the force of law, local justice departments normally abide by
them.

A letter dated 27 December 1999, No. 10766- SYu, giving advance notification
of the new procedural recommendations (which were signed by deputy minister
STANISLAV YUDUSHKIN) `by way of information', gave information about
what are probably two of the most significant events to have occurred since the
adoption of the law - the decision by the Constitutional Court not to apply
restrictions relating to the demand for a minimum 15-year period of existence
in a given area, and information about the draft law to extend the period for
reregistration of religious organisations - as well as several clarifications
relating to conflicts that have emerged during the process of reregistration of
religious organisations.

`In its decree dated 23 November 1999,' the letter noted, `the Constitutional
Court pronounced that religious organisations which were established before
the Federal law came into force, as well as local religious organisations that
form part of the structure of a central religious organisation, may have the full
rights of a juridical person, without confirmation of the minimum 15-year
period of existence in the relevant area, without annual reregistration and
without the application of restrictions set out in paragraph 4, clause 3 of article
27 of the Federal law. In this case, the third and fourth paragraphs of clause 3,
article 27 of the Federal law about the reregistration procedure need not be
applied.'

ALEKSANDR KUDRYAVTSEV, head of the department that registers
religious organisations in the Ministry of Justice in Moscow, makes clear that it
is now easier for religious organisations which gained reregistration as
members of a union to leave that body. `Had there not been the decision of the
Constitutional Court,' he told Keston, `it would have been problematic for
organisations that had not reached the 15-year threshold, but now it is not
difficult.' He spells out how such a religious organisation goes about it: `If a
decision to join a union was specified in the statute and officially recorded,
then of course just like any other change in the statute documents the exit from
the union must be registered.' He reports that Muslim organisations have
already begun to change their affiliation. `They are abandoning the union led
by TALGAT TADJUDDIN in favour of the union led by RAVIL
GAINUTDIN. They just call a meeting, adopt the decision and leave. But this
hasn't happened with Protestants. I have not observed an exodus of religious
organisations from the Protestant unions.'

However, the lawyer YEKATERINA SMYSLOVA, head of the Esther legal
centre in Moscow, believes the Constitutional Court decision has huge practical
significance for the future of Protestant unions. `Artificially created
organisations have lost their meaning,' she told Keston on 31 January. `It's no
secret that several alliances formed "umbrella organisations" for commercial
reasons. There was no spiritual consensus there - only in the Union of
Evangelical Christians/Baptists and in the Moscow Patriarchate - no dissent is
tolerated there.'

Smyslova reports that from as early as December there has been a gradual
exodus of religious organisations, in particular those founded by foreign
missionaries, from the centralised organisations into which they were driven by
the law. `Now, however, they will create modest-sized unions of churches with
a truly united doctrine and united programmes.' The lawyer ANATOLI
PCHELINTSEV, head of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and
Justice, told Keston on 24 January that `the attempt to place all denominations
in one centre was initiated by the authorities - because that makes it more
convenient for them to work with religious organisations'.

The case of churches belonging to the Calvary Chapel movement, which was
registered by the Ministry of Justice on 28 February as a centralised
organisation, is an interesting illustration both of the practical implications of
the decision of the Constitutional Court and
of the conditions under which these and similar churches have had to function
in Russia.

On 17 August 1999 three local Calvary Chapel congregations submitted
documentation for registration as a centralised religious organisation. `In
October they told me that they had been refused registration on the grounds
that each of the three local organisations had existed for less than 15 years,'
Smyslova reported. `I told them that this fifteen-year requirement did not apply
to the registration of a centralised organisation. The churches were then
informed that in accordance with the spirit of the law they could not be
registered. Following the decision of the Constitutional Court they were told
that matters could proceed. In one of the local church statutes (that of the St
Petersburg church) the phrase `Christians of evangelical faith' was used:
ministry officials told me that they could not recognise them as evangelical
Christians. The St Petersburg Church resubmitted its documents in December
and a few days ago the churches received registration as a centralised religious
organisation. All the local churches of the Calvary Chapel movement have their
own creed. Nearly all of them formerly belonged to Sergei Ryakhovsky's
union. At their last conference the head of their movement was elected
precisely as the head of a centralised organisation aiming for registration by the
authorities.'

ILYA GROMOV, lawyer to the Calvary Chapel movement, told Keston on 24
February that the registration process was started in August but there had been
problems with the paperwork. `Some of the local church statutes used the term
"evangelical", others "Christians of evangelical faith": we were not aware of
this apparent discrepancy before. One church had to be reregistered.' Gromov
explained the aim of the centralised body. `Our goal was to unite all the local
churches of the Calvary Chapel movement, not in order to direct their activity,
but in order to help the Churches to obtain juridical status and overcome the
obstacles of the law. The majority of churches are functioning as unregistered
organisations, the registration of missionaries is also a huge problem and we
were forced to turn to churches which had already been registered for help.'

DMITRI USOV, a pastor of a Calvary Chapel church which belongs to Sergei
Ryakhovsky's Union, told Keston on 14 February that he has no plans for the
time being to leave the Union. `When we were registered we had an American
pastor who took care of this. We were advised to join Ryakhovsky's Union as
this would safeguard our position. In January we had a meeting of pastors
where the discussion revolved around the giving of money. They call this a
tithe - but this is not a biblical concept.' Asked by Keston if he had any
intention of joining the
newly-registered Calvary Chapel union the pastor gave a guarded response: `Of
course, if things do not work out in Ryakhovsky's Union we will join them.'

Smyslova told Keston that the Bible Baptists, who are currently in a number of
different unions, are also making plans to form their own union. She predicts
that in the future there will be three different levels of organisation of religious
groups: small unions of churches at one in theory and practice; a centralised
organisation of a single confession where this is possible; and an
interdenominational organisation, similar to the evangelical alliances which
exist in the West, for the purposes of presenting a united front in dealings with
the government authorities.

The lawyer VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY, Pchelintsev's colleague at the
Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, believes that churches will not necessarily
leave the unions they joined for the purposes of legal protection. `The Union of
Presbyterian Churches has decided to leave Ryakhovsky's Union,' he told
Keston on 14 February. `Presbyterian churches of a charismatic leaning fully
accept the teachings of the union, but their sponsors were asking questions.
This is not connected with the decision of the Constitutional Court - they were
registered as a centralised organisation.'

Vladimir Ryakhovsky argues that alliances have been necessary as a means of
protection against the state. `Last year the Council of Evangelical Churches in
Russia was formed, which included Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans.
My brother Sergei Ryakhovsky, a Pentecostal bishop, was elected as its head.
Many churches who did not want to join narrowly denominational unions
joined this organisation, as well as many churches which had been established
through the activity of foreign missionary movements such as Spiritual
Awakening, New Life and Campus Crusade. Its main aim was to act as a
representative of these churches to the state; for those churches not wishing to
join narrow denominational unions it acted as a means of protection.'

Sergei Ryakhovsky confirmed that member congregations have begun to leave
his union: `Around 60 Presbyterian churches are leaving the union and they do
so with my blessing - they are a distinct denomination,' he told Keston on 14
February. `There is also a trend towards unity, such as our alliance with
Vladimir Murza's union - which is the second large union of Pentecostals - on
the basis of autonomous centralisation, that is the independence of both the
unions and their member churches.'

Sergei Ryakhovsky is cautious about the impact of the Constitutional Court
ruling. `The decision of the Constitutional Court has positive and negative
aspects. The fact that any church can now apply for reregistration and that any
local church has the right to legal existence without being forced to join a
union is a positive step. Churches have the right to choose. However, the de
facto legalisation of the term "sect" and the virtual banning of proselytism are
negatives [see �Russians Disagree about Decision of Constitutional Court�,
KNS, 16 December 99]. Taken as a whole my overall impression of the
Constitutional Court decision is a negative one.'

He believes many individual congregations will still need protection afforded
by membership of a union. `My union was created as a means of defence. As
soon as an organisation finds itself outside an organised structure it comes
under the fire of the conservative wing of the Russian Orthodox Church and the
local authorities - on the basis of the law they call the church a "sect": however,
they are rather afraid of those churches belonging to a centralised organisation .
It is possible to be registered but then you are forced to battle alone.'

The deputy head of Murza's Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith
(Pentecostals), PAVEL OKARA, denied that congregations had left his Union
in the wake of the court ruling: `Many still do not know about the
Constitutional Court decision, so no-one has left [the Union].' Okara was also
keen to talk about a proposed merger of his Union with that led by
Ryakhovsky, though he stressed that talk was less of `structural unity' than of
`spiritual unity'. `We have already discussed this with our senior presbyters, a
start has been made, but it may go on for a long time... Unity which depends on
the weather is a cheap unity. The weather changes and unity disappears like a
soap bubble.'

Money also figures in congregations' decisions whether to leave the unions.
According to information gathered by Keston a contribution of between 2 and
10 per cent of church income is levied from member churches of centralised
religious organisations. Two of the biggest unions, Konovalchik's Union of
Evangelical Christians/Baptists and Ryakhovsky's Russian Unified Fellowship
of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals), both levy 10 per cent.

Asked about the giving of tithes, Vladimir Ryakhovsky replied unambiguously:
`If a centralised organisation exists then some financial donations need to be
made in order to support its work.' He believes that the fact that many local
organisations are choosing to remain in the unions despite the financial
demands being made on them is explained by their fear of becoming
defenceless in the face of injustices perpetrated by government officials.

Some believe, though, that many congregations dislike any change and that this
will be enough to ensure that the current set-up remains largely unchanged. `In
order to leave a union a religious organisation needs reasons,' LEV
LEVINSON, an aide to the State Duma deputy SERGEI KOVALEV, told
Keston on 9 March `In Sergei Ryakhovsky's Union the churches are
unconcerned - Vladimir Ryakhovsky is a lawyer and he will defend them if
something happens. These [within religious organisations] are very
conservative people.' (END)