Religious Freedom Issues
RUSSIA: GROWING RESTRICTIONS ON RENTAL BY PROTESTANTS
Forum 18 News, 8/7/204
Russia - While there is nothing in Russian law to prevent religious communities from renting premises for worship, Protestant representatives have told Forum 18 News Service that in recent months they are increasingly barred from doing so.
Most Protestant communities in Russia do not have their own
church buildings and are obliged to rent premises for worship, the majority
of which are still state-controlled.

The 100-strong Glorification Church in the Tuvan capital Kyzyl (bordering
Mongolia), for example, was forced to change its rented premises eight or
nine times from 2002 to 2004, its pastor Dmitri Ryabov told Forum 18 in
July at the small house subsequently purchased by the community. Having
previously rented for three years without incident, the church began to be
told by directors of different premises that they would like to lease to
the congregation but were unable, said Ryabov, "they didn't explain
why."

In the Volga city of Saratov, the 700-strong Word of Life Church also has
its own premises, but has had rental agreements for Christian projects
cancelled five times over the past two years, US church worker Todd Roese
told Forum 18 at the church in June. This figure would be much higher if
it included refusals made to its 70-strong sister congregation in
Saratov's satellite town of Engels, he added, now forced to meet in
private homes after being rejected by every possible venue in the town.
The situation is even more acute in other of Saratov region's small towns,
said Roese, where the church might typically try to consolidate new
congregations of approximately ten people by holding meetings at rented
accommodation every few months: "You have a project to show a
Christian film and you make arrangements with a private theatre, say, you
advertise and then the mayor might tell the theatre director that if he
wants to keep his job he should make sure that the project doesn't take
place."

Forum 18 has previously reported similar problems faced by Protestant
communities in disparate parts of Russia, including Krasnodar region (see
F18News 7 December 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=470
) and the Urals (see F18News 2 August 2004
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=383 and 9 August 2004
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=389 ).

The situation appears to be little better in Moscow. The Russian capital's
1000-strong Emmanuel Pentecostal Church - several of whose representatives
were recently briefly imprisoned for staging what the city authorities
claim was an unauthorised demonstration highlighting state obstruction to
its construction plans (see F18News 13 June 2005
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=583 ) - is now onto
its fifth or sixth rented venue in the city, church administrator Bakur
Azaryan told Forum 18 in June: "If we are thrown out, we won't get
another place." Refusals are given for different reasons, he said,
"that the venue is closed, for example, or under repair - when
it isn't - or that senior administration just won't allow it."
In Nazaryevo and Pushkino (Moscow region), sister Assemblies of God
congregations are obliged to meet in private homes as no local venues will
lease to them, he added.

In August, Pastor Maksim Myasnitsov told Forum 18 that his small Moscow
congregation merged with a much larger evangelical church renting
commercial property after a senior district official told a palace of
culture director to terminate his unofficial rental agreement with them in
early 2004. Myasnitsov tried to make alternative arrangements with three
other local venues but was refused, he said: "Each time they said it
was because we are not Orthodox - if you are not Orthodox, you are a
sect."

A 200-strong evangelical congregation whose pastor preferred not to be
identified for fear of losing its current premises has told Forum 18 that
in late 2004 the church was suddenly asked to move from the Moscow venue
which it had officially rented for many years. "I know the FSB
security service and a high-ranking official asked many times why we were
able to rent there," he said. "This sort of thing happens
everywhere in Russia. At many places, as soon as they find out that they
would be rented for a Protestant service, they simply say that it is not
allowed. It is an unwritten rule - they don't quote any part of the
law."

Speaking to Forum 18 in recent months, Anatoli Pchelintsev and Sergei
Sychev, two Moscow-based lawyers specialising in religious believers'
rights, both agreed that problems renting premises for worship are getting
much more frequent - and that they are not connected with any law. Contrary
to October 2004 media reports of official proposals to bar religious
organisations from renting cultural and sports institutions, consultant to
Russia's parliamentary religion committee Stepan Medvedko has also told
Forum 18 that these "could not possibly have been adopted" but
had to be formally considered as part of the committee's routine procedure
(see Forum 18 religious freedom survey
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=509 ).

While evidently not requiring any legal basis, Sychev suggested to Forum
18 that rental restrictions might be linked by analogy to the Russian
Ministry of Education's July 2000 circular letter warning against
"penetration by non-traditional religious organisations into
educational institutions." He also explained why there can be no
redress for religious organisations refused legitimate access:
"Usually the premises are state property and their administrators are
supposed to inform the federal authorities when they lease them officially.
As they don't do this, they don't need to give any reasons for refusing to
lease."

Anatoli Pchelintsev suggested to Forum 18 in April that the increased
frequency of rental restrictions was the result of stepped-up pressure by
the Moscow Patriarchate on local authorities and cultural institutions not
to lease to Protestants. In July, Portal-Credo Russian religious affairs
website published a circular letter dated 7 February 2005 from Orthodox
Archbishop German (Moralin) of Kursk and Rylsk addressed to all deaneries
in his diocese, ordering the quarterly submission of information on the
activity of "sects" on their territory, including their rate of
growth, where they meet and the details of their "sympathisers"
in local positions of authority, such as mayors or heads of
administration.
© Forum 18 News