Religious Freedom Issues
RUSSIA: CHANGES TO RELIGION LAW?
Forum18, 6/8/2005
Russia - The Russian parliament's committee on social and religious organisations has begun to consider four draft amendments to the 1997 federal religion law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. While the process of adopting the text is still at a preliminary stage, the changes could have a significant impact on foreign missionaries and unregistered religious associations.
On 26 May the Moscow-based religious affairs website Sova Centre reported
that members of the committee's expert council met the same day to discuss
the proposals, which are being recommended by the committee's chairman,
Sergei Popov. Popov, like all parliamentary committee chairmen, is a
member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. He took over the post from
Communist Party deputy Viktor Zorkaltsev following parliamentary elections
in December 2003.

In recent years a number of initiatives have emerged to change the 1997
religion law, but none has made significant progress. A 3 June 2005
report by rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of
Europe urges the Russian authorities "to guarantee the exclusion of
any legal, administrative and fiscal discrimination against so-called
non-traditional confessions and to bring the federal law on freedom of
conscience and religious associations in line with Council of Europe
standards".

Viewed by Forum 18, the first of the proposed amendments would further
define one of the existing legal characteristics of a religious
association - dissemination of faith - as "missionary
activity".

The second would allow expert religious analysis by the state not only
when considering registration applications unsupported by a centralised
religious organisation, but also "to confirm the religious character
of an organisation and to determine the presence or absence of legal
grounds to refuse registration of the religious organisation with a
corresponding title; to identify in the particularities of the doctrine
and practice of a religious association the presence or absence of links
to illegal acts committed by the association's participants with the aim
of filing suit to ban the activity of the religious association and the
additional liquidation of a religious organisation; to ascertain whether
it is necessary to curtail the activity of a religious association,
including in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity."

Under the third proposed amendment, religious activity conducted outside
specially designated places of worship and their related territory, other
premises offered for use by religious organisations, private homes and
state institutions such as hospitals and orphanages would take place
"in accordance with the internal regulations of a religious
organisation" following written notification to the local state
authorities no more than seven days in advance. Such notification is to
include the date of submission, the name of the religious organisation,
the full name of the person responsible for the religious event, its
format, timetable and location, details of measures taken to ensure public
order and medical provision and whether amplification is to be used.

The fourth proposed amendment would allow only centralised religious
organisations to invite foreign citizens to work within their structures.

The official explanatory notes supporting the text of the proposed
amendments state that it is intended to homogenise Russia's legislative
base, improve the law on religion and provide a precise legal definition
of issues related to missionary activity. It notes that foreign missionary
activity in Russia "has led to the significant growth of new religious
movements - from 20 to 69 registered confessions over the past
decade. The intensive growth of new religious associations is destroying
the country's confessional balance, creates a basis for the penetration of
extremist and radicalist ideas, arouses justified alarm and concern within
society and among adherents of the traditional confessions of
Russia."

The explanatory text also states that the first proposed amendment is a
clarification. In relation to the second, it notes that
"borderline" groups such as Falun Gong display religious
characteristics but circumvent the 1997 law by registering as social
organisations. The third proposed amendment, it explains, would remove the
confusion introduced by the July 2004 demonstrations law. This stated that
religious events in public places are to be regulated by the 1997 religion
law, which in turn states that they are to be regulated by the law on
demonstrations. The same amendment, continues the text, would also bar
unregistered religious groups from holding mass public religious services.

Regarding the fourth proposed amendment, the explanatory text notes that
current practice "allows all local organisations to invite religious
workers, who at times preach extremist ideas posing a threat to the
security of Russian society (e.g. Wahhabi). Legal practice has shown that
numerous uncontrolled invitations from religious organisations result in
abuse by some, particularly in the North Caucasus. This practice leads to
a reduction in the authority of centralised structures, as well as to the
absence of a system of effective control over the activity of invited
persons and of responsibility for them."

In a 26 May report on the expert council meeting - to which he was
invited - Sova Centre editor Aleksandr Verkhovsky comments that the
first proposed amendment appears to be intended for use in future
legislation. Proponents of the second, he adds, suggested at the meeting
that expert religious analysis could identify organisations wrongly
describing themselves as religious, and cited Hizb-ut-Tahrir (banned as a
terrorist organisation by Russia's Supreme Court in February 2004) as an
example: "One can therefore expect that, in practice, it will be
determined whether the understanding within an organisation of its
declared religious affiliation is 'correct'. This is a very dangerous
prospect undesirable by its very nature in a secular society - a
state should not determine which Islam (Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and so
on) is right and which is not." According to Verkhovsky, Moscow
Patriarchate lawyer Kseniya Chernega warned at the meeting that, while the
religion law's existing legal concept of "participant" is very
vague, the amendment would increase a religious association's
responsibility for any illegal activity conducted by its
"participants".

Verkhovsky maintains that the fact that unregistered religious groups are
not mentioned in the third proposed amendment does not in fact mean that
they would be deprived of their constitutional right to hold mass meetings
de jure, but "would undoubtedly create serious difficulties in
practice." He remarks that the fourth amendment would benefit both
centralised religious organisations (by giving them greater influence over
local organisations) and state institutions dealing with religion:
"The more centralised the 'subdepartmental' sphere, the easier it is
to co-operate, conflict or have other relations with it."

Catholic Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz expressed concern at the draft
amendments during a 1 June Kremlin meeting of the presidential Council for
Co-operation with Religious Organisations. The proposed provision to allow
only centralised religious organisations to invite foreign religious
workers "could cause many problems for Catholics," Metropolitan
Kondrusiewicz was quoted by the religious affairs website portal-credo.ru
as declaring. "If we invite a priest to Moscow as the centre of the
diocese and he is to work in a completely different place, such as
Kaliningrad, it will take a long time to explain to officials there why
the invitation came from Moscow."

Speaking to Forum 18 in the Volga city of Saratov on 6 June, Bishop
Clemens Pickel of the southern Catholic diocese of St Kliment -
which spans 26 regions of the Russian Federation - shared this
concern. He pointed out that, since authority in Russia exists primarily
at the regional and central level, officials in a region such as
Rostov-on-Don would consider themselves answerable only to Moscow, and not
to Saratov, where his diocese is based.

Co-chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, Mukaddas Bibarsov told Forum 18
that a restriction to centralised religious organisations of the right to
invite foreign religious workers would not affect his Volga Region
Spiritual Directorate of Muslims. Speaking in Saratov on 5 June, however,
he voiced concern that the state was already determining the religious
nature of some organisations. He pointed to a 13 May news agency report
quoting Vladimir Tatarchuk, aide to presidential representative in the
Volga Federal District Sergei Kiriyenko, that "three representatives
of the international extremist organisation Tabligh have been identified
in Saratov region." "It is simply ridiculous to call Tabligh
extremist - and they aren't banned here," Mufti Bibarsov
remarked.

Regarding expert religious analysis, he pointed out to Forum 18 that it
was a complex matter to determine whether something was Muslim or not.
"An academic cannot get to the heart of doctrinal issues. In the
current Russian situation, such experts would have to be totally
independent, from outside our country - but the state doesn't have
that facility."

But religious rights lawyer and expert council member Anatoli Pchelintsev
told Forum 18 in Moscow on 9 June that he remains sceptical that these
proposed amendments stand a chance of being adopted. He believes that the
religious situation is stable at present, so few politicians will see a
need to back the proposed changes. He suspects the move is designed to
raise the public profile of the religion committee and Popov himself.

For a personal commentary by an Old Believer about continuing denial of
equality to Russia's religious minorities see F18News
© Forum18