Church restitution bill drafted

Moscow, Russia - The Russian Economic Development and Trade Ministry has drafted a bill on church restitution bill that may turn the Russian Orthodox Church into a major proprietor.

Religious organizations are to receive "religious property", currently owned by the state. Churches currently use such property free of charge. If passed the law would forbid the Orthodox Church from using property on the UNESCO World Heritage List, such as Kremlin cathedrals and St. Basil's Cathedral on Moscow's Red Square, as well as other world-famous cultural sites.

Representatives of Russia's religious confessions say the new bill would help "restore historical justice". "The restitution of confiscated property sounds like a very good idea," said Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia.

According to Russian Union of Evangelical Christians Sergei Ryakhovsky, "the bill opens up new opportunities for the development of spiritual life in Russia". He said many religious organizations are struggling. Ryakhovsky said Protestant organizations could swell their budgets by leasing out some facilities. "If necessary, we would lease land plots to food store owners and earn more," Kogan said.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it would not use newly acquired property for commercial purposes. "Our Church will not earn money through religious property. It will only be used to implement social programs," said Vladimir Vigilyansky, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy.

Realtors are positive that the bill would turn the Russian Orthodox Church into a major non-state owner. "The Church could become the country's largest land owner after the state. Only such corporate giants as Gazprom or [electricity monopoly] Unified Energy System of Russia would be able to compete with it," said Prime City Properties' Roman Cheptsov, who added that one hectare of land in Moscow now costs $6-7 million.