Religious Organizations Appeal New Accountability

Leaders of the traditional religious confessions of Russia intend to appeal to the president and government to cancel the new form of accounting for religious organizations that are subject to the Law “On Noncommercial Organizations,” Kommersant has learned. Protestant leaders have already sent a letter to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev making the same request. The leaders object to providing the Federal Registration Service with data about the number of attendees at services, who gives how much money and so on.

The leaders of five Protestant organizations – the Russian Union of Evangelical Baptist Christians, the Western Russian Union of Seventh-Day Adventist Christian Churches, the Russian Consolidated Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, the Russian Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith and the Council of Christian Evangelical Churches in Russia – have sent a letter to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asking that the new rules for accounting be annulled for religious organizations.

Those rules came into force with the passage by the Russian government of Resolution No. 212, under which religious organizations, like other noncommercial organizations, must provide a detailed annual account of their activities to the Federal Registration Service. That account must be handed in to the registration service by April 15, 2007. Before the passage of the resolution, religious organizations only provided financial accounts to the tax service and the registration service had entirely different control functions. “It [the Federal Registration Service] tracked observation by the church of its charter and Russian legislation so that it didn't hide any commercial structure behind the appearance of a religious organization,” explained Pastor Konstantin Bendas of the Russian Consolidated Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith. Under the new rules, the Registration Service also monitors the income and expenditures of the religious organizations.

“We will have to present information on the expenditure of monetary funds and the use of other property,” Bendas told Kommersant. “It is not clear to us why it is necessary to double the activities of fiscal bodies, we are fairly transparent in financial matters any way and we give a detailed account to the tax bodies.” He added that it was not possible to give a more detailed account. “I don't know how we can give an account of who put how much in the church plate,” he said.

Besides financial monitoring, the Registration Service also has broad supervision over church structures. “The resolution requires churches to give an account of any events and projects' and to show the number of people who take part,” the letter sent to Medvedev states. “The faithful perceive that as interference in the inner life of the church.” “Now we will have to give account of who preached and how many people were at a service. That is a clear violation of the law On Freedom of Conscience,'” Bendas commented. “And if those requirements are systematically not met, any religious organization can be closed.”

Representatives of traditional confessions also find the innovations objectionable and plan to appeal them. “The Russian Orthodox Church is already preparing an analogical appeal to the federal authorities,” Xenia Chernega, a lawyer for the Moscow Patriarchate told Kommersant. “The specifics of religious organizations have to be considered. They cannot be placed in the same category of noncommercial organizations.” Chernega said that the new rules would be a hardship for the Church. “The Church never kept records of, for example, the distribution of candles, because a candle is a sacrifice to God,” she explained, adding that surplices - christenings, weddings and funerals – also go unrecorded.

“Certainly the new accounting rules are an encroachment on the internal life of the church,” Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia stated.

“We will appeal to the president because such monitoring is unacceptable in democratic conditions,” chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia Ravil Gainutdin said. “The state's business is to register a religious organization, not to count how many people come or how much money they give.”

“This is not an issue that Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] can resolve,” Andrey Sebentsov, executive secretary for religious organizations in the Russian government, commented for Kommersant on the Protestants' letter. “The government resolution was made in compliance with the law on noncommercial organizations and there is no reason to reconsider anything in that document now… The new accounting rules do not violate the law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.'”

Kommersant has learned that religious leaders intend to raise the issue at a meeting of the presidential council on cooperation with religious organizations in the near future.