Religious Groups Get a Waiver

Moscow, Russia - Government officials will amend new regulations on nongovernmental organizations to exempt religious groups when it comes to accounting for services and donations, Kommersant reported Friday.

A government commission that oversees religious organizations, which is chaired by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, reportedly opted at a meeting several days ago to simplify religious groups' requirements by the end of this month.

Russian Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish groups have been lobbying for the exemptions since the contentious NGO law came into force late last year.

The law requires all NGOs to submit detailed accounts of their activities to the Federal Registration Service every April, beginning this year.

Religious leaders from the country's four major faiths said the new law would make it impossible for them to operate. The law, which was designed to keep an eye on civil society groups and to discourage foreign funding of NGOs, would require religious groups to account for how much congregants are tithed.

Vladislav Surkov, presidential deputy chief of staff, met with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and several other faiths Feb. 2, agreeing that religious groups should be exempted from the accounting provisions.

The Federal Registration Service is now drafting new, pared-down requirements for religious organizations.

After the changes are implemented, religious groups will not have to report how many parishioners attend every service, how much parishioners give to their religious organizations, and what is discussed at meetings of senior religious officials.

The religious organizations must still account for donations made by outside organizations as well as for "use of other property," Kommersant reported.

This last stipulation, on property use, will be impossible for religious officials to fulfill, said Ksenia Chernega, a lawyer representing the Russian Orthodox Church.

Chernega said accounting for the use of "other property" would require an extensive inventory of everything in all church facilities, which she called "physically impossible."

Vsevolod Chaplin, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, also called for further liberalization of the accounting rules. He was echoed by Konstantin Bendas, a spokesman for the Russian Union of Christian Evangelicals; Bendas said religious groups should be exempt from accounting.

Secular NGOs, meanwhile, hope the exemptions for religious groups will lead to an easing up on the pressure now on aid groups and others.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Interfax she is hopeful "we also will be freed."

Yan Rachinsky of the human rights group Memorial said it would be unfair to give exemptions to religious groups only.