Baptist group in Moscow denied public library after 2 years' use

A 300-strong unregistered Baptist community in Moscow is searching for a new place to worship after being informed that they can no longer rent premises at a public library near the world-famous Tretyakov Gallery, Forum 18 News Service reported March 13.

For the past six years the congregation has been holding several meetings a week after opening hours at the Ushinsky Public Library, pastor Aleksei Kalyashin told Forum 18 in Moscow. In mid-January, the library's administration unexpectedly informed the Baptists they could no longer use the premises and returned an advance rental payment for the first quarter of 2003.

Kalyashin told Forum 18 he does not believe the library administration is behind the move. "They were always very well-disposed towards us," he said from his home in mid-February, noting that they had not previously experienced interference of any kind there. "Pressure from above" was the only explanation given for the termination of the congregation's verbal rental agreement, he said, and the library's administrator would not elaborate.

On Jan. 12, Forum 18 observed what would be one of the Baptists' last meetings at the library, where there was standing room only for two visiting Dutch preachers.

As in the early days of perestroika in the late 1980s, Kalyashin said the congregation is currently forced to meet at up to seven different private homes at a time.

Because of a lack of space, Kalyashin recounted, a decision was made to divide the congregation into two groups in 2000. The 100-strong subgroup soon began to experience difficulties not encountered by those at the Ushinsky Library.

"Pressure from above" was similarly cited by library administrators when the subgroup had rental agreements terminated three times in the course of the subsequent two years, he said.

Kalyashin told Forum 18 he supposes that the congregation was expelled because, as an unregistered religious group, they do not have legal status according to Russia's 1997 law on religion. The congregation is a member of the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which broke away from the mainstream Baptist Union over issues of cooperation with the atheist Soviet state in 1961.

Kalyashin argued that under the 1997 law on religion, which supersedes local legislation, a religious group may rent property through the physical person of an individual group member. The law states that "premises and property necessary for the activities of a religious group are to be provided for the use of the group by its participants." The official commentary to this provision determines that such premises may be either the property of a member or be rented or used by them on a temporary basis on other grounds: "... an organization where a participant works may be made available to them, for example."

Without confirming the existence of municipal legislation prohibiting individuals from renting public property, the press relations officer at Moscow City Council's Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations told Forum 18 Feb. 21 that such a practice was indeed followed. Konstantin Blazhenov, referencing the religion law, said members of a religious group may make available for its worship only such property that is at their personal disposal. He also noted that "plenty of religious organizations" rented cinemas and other public premises in Moscow without hindrance.