All work in progress on amendments to Russia's 1997 religious law has now been published on an internet site (www.state-religion.ru) maintained by Igor Ponkin's Institute for State-Confessional Relations and Law. On 24 October, however, the chairman of the governmental
working group currently reviewing the law, Andrei Sebentsov, denied to Keston News Service that a comprehensive text agreed upon by his group was in existence.
Sebentsov reported that the working group has yet to agree upon the amendments it would propose. This would take another two or three meetings, or until the end of the year, he told Keston, after which the group would present a text for consideration by the Commission for
Religious Associations. If approved by the Commission, the amendments could then go forward for consideration by the State Duma (parliament).
Speaking to Keston on 25 October, Ponkin insisted that the text on his website was both authentic and up-to-date. He did not wish to reveal his source for the material.
Keston News Service has already (in KNS 2 April 2002) highlighted the main differences from the 1997 law in the text of Articles 1-16, which was posted on the same website earlier this year. As well as Articles 17-27, the latest text includes changes to what was published earlier,
summaries of the most significant of which are given below.
RELIGIOUS GROUP STATUS
According to the current law, a religious group operates without legal personality status in premises provided by its members, and has the right to conduct worship services and teach its own followers.
In the previously leaked draft amendments, it was specified that a religious group could operate in rented premises provided by its members and give religious instruction other than to its own followers. (Article 7)
The latest text omits the reference to rented premises, but states that persons who have informed their local organs of government about the formation of a religious group and who continue to inform them annually of the continuation of its activities "have the right to receive the assistance of the corresponding state organs in the provision on the corresponding territory of a site or premises for the holding of gatherings and other events of a religious nature, and, if necessary, in the safeguarding of public order and security."
The latest text also gives religious groups the right to teach religion without specifying to whom. In disseminating religious faith, the members of the group "must provide those who they approach with such information about the creed that they are disseminating that it may be
distinguished from other creeds (religions)."
Dated 19 June, the leaked draft does not take into account the amendments to Article 14, which lists grounds for the liquidation of a religious organisation, which were later introduced in conjunction with the law "On Counteracting Extremist Activity" in July. Rather, it gives
additional grounds, such as "the application of norms of religious law at odds with the legislation of the Russian Federation." However, according to the text, illegal activity by a member of a religious organisation would have to be legally proven to have been the result of religious instruction received in a religious organisation and/or the carrying out of demands of its leader for that organisation to be liquidated.
According to Article 25, the Ministry of Justice and its departments would have the right, "with foundation", to request and receive from the ruling organs of a religious organisation information concerning the compliance of its charter with its aims and activity. They could also send observers to a religious organisation's events, with its permission, for a period of no more than three days. On discovering that a religious organisation is committing activity which is not in keeping with its charter or in violation of the law on religion, the organ of justice issues a written warning, including grounds, a reasonable period and recommended ways in which to curtail the violations cited. Copies of the warning, which is open to court appeal, are sent to the centralised religious organisation (if any) and to the Ministry of Justice. If two warnings are made which are not recognised as groundless by a court and not a single violation has been curtailed in a reasonable period, the organ of justice has the right to file for the liquidation of the religious organisation.
While Article 8 currently states that religious organisations are non-commercial, Article 23 of the text adds that they may engage in business, found "other organisations" and participate in them in accordance with the law.
According to Article 18 of the text, religious organisations engaged directly in charitable activity are considered charitable organisations and must keep a separate set of accounts detailing income and expenditure for charitable purposes, including property and wages paid to personnel involved in the charitable work. Article 24 stipulates that religious personnel ("svyashchennosluzhiteli") do not necessarily have to work
according to a labour contract.