The Big Chill: Russia Reins In Religious Liberty

Deadline Left Many Groups Out in the Cold

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MOSCOW, FEB. 24, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Some churches are finding that Russia and some of the former Soviet republics can be very cold places indeed.



In Russia all religious organizations had to re-register with the authorities by Dec. 31 or face compulsory liquidation. And in some nearby republics, officials are actively repressing groups.

According to the 1997 Russian law on "freedom of conscience and religious unions," the failure to re-register means a group cannot have legal status. In practice this means the group would have a problem opening a bank account, renting offices or places of worship, or distributing literature. Registration is especially difficult for religious organizations that cannot prove that they have been present in Russia for more than 15 years.

The Keston News Service reported Jan. 12 that up to 96 of the 104 mosques in Ulyanovsk, about 500 miles east of Moscow, had not re-registered. Some communities of Pentecostals have refused to submit to the re-registration process. In Moscow itself, Keston reported, the local branch of the Salvation Army was refused registration, as was a group of Buddhists.

In Siberia, six Catholic parishes were not registered by the deadline, Keston reported. Father Andrei Duklewski said this was due to the inaccessibility of the parishes, which made it difficult to complete all the paperwork on time.

Radio Free Europe, meanwhile, reported Feb. 2 on a round-table discussion held in Moscow to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country. Those present criticized the deadline for re-registration, as well as the law on religion which designates the Russian Orthodox Church as having a dominant role in spiritual life.

According to Radio Free Europe, presidential human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov said about 30% of religious organizations, or about 4,500 groups, did not re-register with the Justice Ministry or local department before the deadline. The Russian Justice Ministry put the figure at only 10%.

Mironov said he had written to President Vladimir Putin in November asking him to seek an extension of the registration deadline to 2003 and to purge the law of its discriminatory measures. Mironov´s deputy, Alexey Lebedev, said the request did not get a very positive response.

The January bulletin of the Christian news agency Compass Direct noted that some Protestant, Muslim and Orthodox groups failed to meet the registration deadline because of resistance by local authorities and months of delays fighting battles in local courts. Pentecostal churches especially experienced problems in local areas probably due to their more active style of worship and more aggressive ministries.

Battles in Moscow

Registration for some organizations has been particularly difficult in Moscow. Last month Compass Direct reported that the Moscow courts rejected the Salvation Army´s appeal Nov. 28 for re-registration as a religious organization.

The city court upheld a district court decision stating that the word "army" indicated the group might be military and a threat to national security. As a result of the decisions, the Salvation Army was evicted from two of its seven rental properties in the city. (It had more success with the federal Committee of Religious Expertise. The panel recommended unanimously Dec. 26 to approve the Salvation Army´s application for registration on the federal level as a centralized religious organization.)

Earlier this month a court battle resumed in Moscow over a possible ban on Jehovah´s Witnesses. Authorities accused the sect of breaking up families, fomenting national discord, curbing individuals´ rights and converting minors without their parents´ permission, the New York Times reported Feb. 6. But on Friday, Reuters reported that a city court judge rejected the city prosecutor´s case, thus allowing the Jehovah´s Witnesses to continue their activities.

The court case had been brought by the Committee to Protect Youth From Totalitarian Sects, under Article 14 of Russia´s Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association. Proceedings against the group, which says it has 280,000 members in Russia, including 15,000 in Moscow, had been postponed several times as prosecutors sought more time to gather evidence. Outside of Moscow, 361 Jehovah´s Witnesses groups have already obtained registration.

Persecution in the republics

The former Soviet republics see their own share of religious discrimination. In the Crimea peninsula, in southwest Ukraine, the Lutheran parish in the town of Sudak has been unsuccessfully fighting to regain the German Lutheran church confiscated in 1930. The parish learned Christmas Eve that it was no longer allowed even to rent the building for services, the Keston News Service reported Feb. 7.

The museum based in the church also decided simultaneously to halt the building´s use by an Evangelical Christian/Baptist congregation. Both communities were forced to hold their Christmas services in hastily arranged alternative premises. Since then, neither congregation has made any progress in regaining use of the Lutheran church building, which is now closed for repairs.

The situation is worse in Turkmenistan. There, religious communities live under constant surveillance and have to abide by restrictive laws, while members of nontraditional congregations face routine harassment and imprisonment, Radio Free Europe reported Feb. 19.

Earlier this month, London-based Amnesty International issued an alert that urged Turkmen authorities to release Baptist Christian Shagildy Atakov from a labor camp in northeastern Turkmenistan.

A father of five, Atakov was fined $12,000 and sentenced to two years in a labor camp in March 1999 on charges of fraud connected with his automobile business. His sentence was later increased to four years. Amnesty International believes that the case was fabricated and that the real reason for Atakov´s imprisonment is his religious affiliation. Atakov´s wife and children have been placed under house arrest in a small village close to the Iranian border.

In November 1999, Turkmen authorities ordered the razing of a Seventh-day Adventist church in the capital Ashgabat without prior notice. The decision followed a similar attack on a Hare Krishna temple.

Under Turkmen law, religious organizations must prove that they have at least 500 citizens over the age of 18 as adherents to gain official recognition. In addition, all of the faithful must live in the same city or town. This double requirement has prevented all but Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians from attaining legal status.

Recently Turkmenistan´s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, indicated his desire to further extend his authority over spiritual matters. He has published a code of spiritual conduct for his fellow citizens, Agence France-Presse reported Feb. 20. The book, called the Rukhname, has been billed as a program of spiritual development, a code of moral and ethical commandments and a charter for how the citizens of this central Asian republic should act.

In a three-hour speech to the Peoples Council last Sunday, Niyazov said the book would "determine the main criteria for the development of the Turkmen people and their moral qualities in the 21st century." It remains to be seen whether his speech wins over any religious-rights activists.