Religious Freedom Issues
RUSSIA: GROWING OBSTRUCTION TO PROTESTANT CHURCH PROPERTY OWNERSHIP
Forum 18 News, 8/24/2005
Russia - Protestant communities wanting to build a place of worship face increasing obstruction from state authorities, they have told Forum 18 News Service.
Protestant communities seeking to build their own places of worship have
told Forum 18 News Service that they increasingly face obstruction by the
state authorities, although such obstructions are less frequent than
rental restrictions (see F18News 19 August 2005
). Difficulties
acquiring property for worship are also encountered by other religious
confessions in Russia (see forthcoming F18News article).

Despite "promises, promises, promises" from the Moscow municipal
authorities, the 1000-strong Emmanuel Pentecostal Church has made no
progress in obtaining either a new construction site or official rights to
the land beneath a building it owns in the city, its pastor Aleksandr
Purshaga told Forum 18 on 23 August. Following a series of high-profile
demonstrations in the Russian capital earlier this year - for which
several church members served brief prison sentences as the authorities
claimed that their protest was unsanctioned (see F18News 13 June 2005
) - municipal
construction department vice-chairman Aleksandr Kosovan met with Purshaga
and church administrator Bakur Azaryan in early June. Contacted by Forum
18 soon after that meeting, Azaryan reported that Kosovan had ordered
Emmanuel's construction problems - which formed the basis of the church's
demonstrations - to be resolved by 30 June.

To date, Aleksandr Purshaga told Forum 18, senior municipal officials have
merely promised to find Emmanuel Church a site equal in value to the one
that it lost and to grant rights to the plot of land occupied by the
building that it subsequently purchased in Moscow's Solntsevo District.
The pastor noted, however, that a junior official has recently positioned
beer tents around the building - turning it into the scene of frequent
drunkenness and fighting - and that Moscow police are continuing to
obstruct church members' ongoing protests outside the city's mayor's
office.

After Emmanuel Church obtained the necessary approval from all relevant
state departments for construction on a plot of land allocated to it in
1996, the local district assembly in Moscow's Vernadsky Prospekt District
suddenly rejected the plans in November 2000. Quoted in the 11 December
2001 issue of Russian religious affairs publication NG-Religii, Vernadsky
Prospekt district newspaper explained that the assembly had decided not to
support the project because representatives of Emmanuel Church were
"exerting psychological pressure upon local officials and misleading local
residents as to their true intentions". This phraseology is strikingly
similar to that of a 6 March 2001 letter to the head of Vernadsky Prospekt
district assembly from the department for the study of sects at the Russian
Orthodox Church's St Tikhon Theological Institute. Quoted in the
English-language Moscow Times on 10 June 2005, however, chief spokesman
for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II Mikhail Moiseyev maintained that
Emmanuel's problems were "by no means connected to the Orthodox Church."

Despite a large Protestant demonstration on the southern Russian city of
Voronezh's Lenin Square on 4 June 2005, there has similarly been no
concrete improvement in the fortunes of two Pentecostal churches barred
from acquiring property. Pastor Aleksei Shipovsky told Forum 18 on 22
August that his God's Glory Church and Pastor Andrei Bashmakov's Centre
for Spiritual Service each have approximately 150 members and legal
personality status, even though their Russia-wide Pentecostal union headed
by Ivan Fedotov opposed state registration during the Soviet period.

According to a series of reports posted on Russian religious affairs
website Portal-Credo, God's Glory Church first asked the mayor of Voronezh
for land on which to build a church centre for its alcohol and drug abuse
rehabilitation programme in the summer of 2002, and was subsequently
allocated a site in the city's Komintern District. Its plan rejected as
"inexpedient" by the district's officials, however, the church was
allocated an alternative construction site in Soviet District, but the
authorities there likewise issued a refusal.

The Centre for Spiritual Service won the rights to a plot of land in a
run-down industrial part of Voronezh's Left Bank District in early 2002
and spent the rest of the year obtaining approval from the relevant state
departments for its plans to build a church there, according to
Portal-Credo. Shortly before construction was due to begin in spring 2003,
however, the chief architect of Voronezh refused to sign the plans,
claiming that the Centre for Spiritual Service had violated legal
procedure. While the church attempted to resolve the issue, public
opposition to construction began to mount. Local residents claiming not to
have been informed about the "sectarians'" plans filed suit in 2004, and
Left Bank District Court finally cancelled the church's rights to the plot
of land in April 2005.

While Protestants in Voronezh and elsewhere in Russia often suspect local
Orthodox clergy to be instrumental in blocking their construction plans,
they point out that this often takes the form of Soviet-style "telephone
law", or undocumented decisions made in private discussion between state
officials and local Orthodox representatives. In an unusually open example
of this interplay, however, the Volga city of Saratov's construction
committee recently refused Word of Life Pentecostal Church permission to
advertise its presence on the outside wall of its own premises. In a
letter dated 4 May 2005, a copy of which has been received by Forum 18,
chief architect Vladimir Virich writes simply: "On the basis of letter No.
490 dated 19 April 2005 from the Saratov diocese of the Russian Orthodox
Church, the Architecture and Construction Committee cannot agree to a
canvas banner with an advertisement for local Pentecostal religious
organisation 'Word of Life' being placed at 88 Chernyshevsky Street in the
October District of Saratov."

Protestant communities also report often lengthy and energy-consuming
battles to retain worship property they have managed to acquire. God's
Church, a 60-strong Pentecostal congregation in Stavropol region's
southern spa town of Mineralnyye Vody, is still unable to use the
two-storey former shop it purchased in February 2003, its pastor Igor
Nikishin told Forum 18 on 22 August. While the town's mayor initially
allocated the church both the building and the plot of land legally bound
to it, he issued a decree in October 2003 reducing the land area to that
immediately beneath the building (see F18News 7 December 2004
), meaning that the
rest could be sold off. Although the God's Church congregation
subsequently succeeded in fighting three arbitration court challenges to
this decree and the authorities began to compile documentation granting it
the whole area of land in spring 2005, "they are dragging it out as long as
possible," Nikishin remarked.

In the wake of a series of vandalism and arson attacks on the newly built
Ark Church in Balashikha (Moscow region), a district court ordered that it
be razed to the ground at the request of the local administration in June
2004. The church, which belongs to the main Russia-wide Baptist Union,
successfully appealed against the decision in December 2004, however. A
similar threat against an unregistered Baptist church in Lyubuchany
(Moscow region) also appears to have receded, as a court case set to
prosecute the owner of its prayer house for ostensibly unlawful
construction was cancelled in April 2005
© Forum 18 News