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RUSSIA: WHO OWNS RELIGIOUS PROPERTY?
Forum18 News, 8/30/2005
Russia - One of the most troublesome issues for religious communities is gaining property. In places where historical worship buildings survive, there can be insufficient numbers of religious believers to claim or take care of them.
Twenty years after perestroika, one of the most troublesome issues for
religious communities in Russia remains securing property for religious
activity. A 23 April 1993 decree from the then-President, Boris Yeltsin,
instructed the Russia government "to carry out the gradual transfer of
houses of worship, religious buildings, their associated territory and
other items of religious significance from federal ownership to the
ownership of or usage by religious organisations." It set no deadline for
this to be completed, however, and did not extend to municipal, regional
or already privatised property.

The decree affects those religious confessions whose historical property
has survived confiscation by the Soviet regime - usually those regarded as
"traditional" to Russia. However, as Vladimir Shamarin of St Petersburg's
priestless Pomorye Old Believer community pointed out to Forum 18 in May
2005, "whereas the Belokrinitsy [Old Believers with a priestly hierarchy]
had beautiful churches, ours weren't historical monuments, so they didn't
often survive." Of at least 170 Buddhist monasteries and temples in
Russia, only two escaped destruction by the Soviet authorities. In
addition, there were approximately 300 Catholic churches and chapels in
the area now covered by Bishop Clemens Pickel's Saratov-based southern
diocese before 1917, he estimated to Forum 18 in June 2005, whereas today
only six or seven of its functioning churches are historical.

In places where historical worship buildings have survived, there is often
an insufficient number of religious believers to claim or take care of
them, due not only to Soviet anti-religious policy but also shifting
populations. This is particularly the case with Orthodox churches in
deeply rural Russia, and for the Jewish and largely German Lutheran
communities, who have mostly emigrated. While a Lutheran church survives
as a cosmetics shop in central Smolensk, for instance, a representative of
ELKRAS [the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and
Central Asia] told Forum 18 in May that the small Lutheran community there
would not be able to manage its upkeep. Catholic Bishop Pickel explained to
Forum 18 that the decision to build a new Catholic church in Saratov had
partly been motivated by the overly large size of the historical one on
the city's main street, now occupied by a shopping centre.

For historical reasons, growing rental restrictions predominantly affect
other Protestant communities (see F18News 19 August 2005
), whose communities
also have growing problems in buying new premises (see F18News 24 August
2005 ).

In cases where churches were privatised in the early 1990s - notably
Catholic and Orthodox churches still used as restaurants in Vologda and
Old Believer churches in Moscow used as a boxing club and political party
offices - challenges by local religious communities to their privatisation
have failed (see F18News 30 March 2005
).

This has also proved the case when the property concerned now belongs to a
municipal authority. In Krasnodar, for instance, the Greek Orthodox
community has failed to win back its pre-1917 worship premises - despite
having the backing of both historical evidence and the local Orthodox
bishop - because the municipal authorities see no reason to return
property under their direction (see F18News 24 January 2005
). In what is by now
many years of correspondence, the state authorities' argumentation for
refusal to return historical property to religious communities such as
Barnaul's Catholic parish (see F18News 3 August 2005
) and Krasnodar's
Progressive Jewish community (see F18News 24 January 2005
) typically reveals
that they are extremely reluctant to assist.

The geographical picture is varied, however. While the local authorities
in Stavropol have obstructed the return of the historical mosque to the
Muslim community (see F18News 24 January 2005
), Forum 18 observed
two historical mosques in Tomsk again used for worship by local Muslims in
2005. Likewise, while Catholics have received their historical churches in
Karelia, Kursk, Tatarstan and Tyumen, they have not succeeded in claiming
them in Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, Smolensk or Yaroslavl.

In Belgorod and Samara respectively (see F18News 30 January 2005
), Catholic and Old
Believer churches have been given to the local Russian Orthodox diocese,
even though corresponding local Catholic and Old Believer communities
exist.

In some areas the local authorities have openly financed the construction
of new worship premises, arguing, as in the traditionally Buddhist
republic of Tuva, that this is to compensate for losses inflicted by the
Soviet atheist state (see F18News 2 August 2005
). Usually, only the
locally dominant confession benefits. In the traditionally Buddhist
republic of Kalmykia, the government provided over 2,500 million Roubles
(then worth about Norwegian Kroner, Euros, or 500,000 US Dollars) for the
construction of the Syakyusn-syume temple in 1996 (see F18News 11 April
2003 ). In Khabarovsk,
regional governor Viktor Ishayev chairs the board of governors overseeing
construction of the vast new Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration
while most Protestants are barred from building in the city centre (see
F18News 22 June 2004 ).
In Yekaterinburg, a 19 May 2004 local decree transferred the newly built
multi-million-rouble Orthodox Church-on-the-Blood onto the region's public
accounts (see F18News 9 August 2004
).

While the Russian Orthodox are generally favoured, the cultural importance
that has resulted in the survival of their historical church property can
ironically prove an obstacle to its return. According to a 14 March 1995
government ruling, Russia's Ministry of Culture determines whether
religious organisations are permitted sole or shared use of historical and
cultural monuments of religious significance. As a result, many key sites -
including Moscow's Kremlin cathedrals, St Petersburg's Peter and Paul
Cathedral, Yaroslavl's Transfiguration Monastery, Vologda's Archbishop's
Courtyard and most of Novgorod's medieval churches - remain state-run
museums. Previously allowed use of its cathedral only several times a
year, Kostroma and Galich Orthodox diocese was transferred the city's
famous Ipatyevsky Monastery in late 2004, to the fiercely opposition of
the complex's museum workers.

Similar problems beset the return of other forms of religious property. In
St Petersburg, for example, Pomorye Old Believer elder Vladimir Shamarin
told Forum 18 that although the Russian Museum certainly holds Old
Believer icons and service books, it has not transferred items of
religious significance to any confession as far as he knew. In 2002
Lubavitch Jews managed to secure the return from the Russian state of 30
out of thousands of books collected by Lubavitch rabbi Yosef Yitzchak
Schneerson, but only after a decade of lobbying. In the same year, a
Russian government spokesman roundly dismissed a proposal backed by
Patriarch Aleksi II to return three million hectares of pre-1917 church
land.

Religious property transferred by the state to religious organisations is
not usually owned by them - in the case of monuments of very special
significance, this is illegal - but, in line with Russia's 1997 religion
law, is given for their use free of charge. After strong criticism from
the Russian Orthodox Church, the government altered proposed amendments to
the Land Code in late 2004 in order to spare religious organisations from
paying rent on the land beneath such property. In accordance with an 11
October 1991 federal law, religious associations are exempt from paying
land tax.

The recent changes to the Land Code have also ended the Civil Code's
practice of allocating free building land to religious as well as social
organisations, as such land must now be either purchased or rented. While
Protestants are the confession most frequently obstructed when seeking
building permission (see F18News 24 August 2005
), it is also fraught
with difficulty for other confessions. In a 14 January 2005 letter viewed
by Forum 18, the vice-mayor of Cheboksary (Chuvashiya Republic) informed a
local Old Believer parish that "you must obtain the consent of Cheboksary
and Chuvashiya Orthodox diocese before a decision can be made." The Moscow
community of Russia's indigenous Molokan Christian organisation recently
complained that its efforts over six years to acquire land for a prayer
house remain fruitless.

In a number of Russian towns and cities, including Sochi, St Petersburg
and Tolyatti (Samara region), Muslim communities have been denied
permission to build mosques, ostensibly due to public opposition (see
F18News 9 November 2004
and 6 June 2005
). According to a 2
June 2005 letter viewed by Forum 18 from a local community of the Volga
Spiritual Directorate of Muslims close to the Kazakh border, the head of
administration in Ozinki district (Saratov region) donated construction
material for a new Orthodox church but refused to do the same for a partly
built mosque, remarking: "Am I your servant, to be finding you roof-tiles?
Don't come to me with such questions again."

While Forum 18 has observed new houses of worship belonging to normally
disfavoured religious communities in prominent sites - such as a New
Apostolic church in Khabarovsk and a Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall in
Vyborg (Leningrad region), local authorities sometimes attempt to
challenge religious communities' ownership of worship premises they have
built themselves. This is particularly the case with alternative Orthodox
communities, such as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad parish in Votcha
© Forum18 News