Religion at a Crossroads

One needs at least 15 years to make a judgment about whether a religious group new to Russia deserves all the tax and other benefits that the state allots recognized groups, representatives of Russia's traditional religions say.

Recent parliamentary hearings considered possible amendments to the law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations. That law, adopted in 1997, gave legal form to the principles of religious freedom and separation of religion and state. In the view of those at the hearings-clergy representing Russia's traditional confessions, members of the State Duma, political specialists and non-clerical representatives of religious organizations-the law of 1997, while flawed, was in its time the only possible formulation for Russia.

The years since then have demonstrated, according to Deputy Justice Minister Evgeny Sidorenko, that the rights and freedom declared in the law are more than words but are aspects of the reality of contemporary Russia. Approximately, 21,000 religious organizations of all kinds are officially registered with the state, which has turned over to them an enormous amount of religiously significant property, Sidorenko said. At the same time, the number of religions as such now represented in Russia has risen from 20 to 59, largely as a result of the so-called New Religious Movement (NRM) or, as Sidorenko called them, 'new religious formations' (generally known to Russians as 'sects').

Sectarian growth is largely attributable to the work of foreign missionaries, Sidorenko said, and that is why the Justice Ministry is seeking to better define the status and permitted activities of such persons. There are related concerns, he said, about the activities of non-clerical religious groups. In the last year alone, he said, some 246 lawsuits have been filed contesting the legal standing and privileges accorded such groups.

Other changes in the law are also being sought. An interdepartmental government working group has been drawing up possible amendments for some time. Its suggestions were not unanimously endorsed at the hearings.

According to the working group's vice chairman, Andrey Sebentsov, whom representatives of the Union of Orthodox Citizens consider their foe because of his alleged softness toward enemies of Russian Orthodoxy, the revised law would clearly stipulate that it is the obligation of the central government and local authorities to see that properties are used as they are designated to be used, including houses of worship and the like. Aside from the now rather old presidential decree on the matter, Russian law is devoid of specific rules for property turnovers, a fact that has made it very difficult for religious groups to regain control of church properties confiscated in the 1930s for use as warehouses, garages and collective-farm social halls. The effort can take years.

The working group was particularly concerned with problems of religious education. According to Sebentsov, the question is who does the teaching-regular school staff or religious organizations using school facilities. General schools are quite capable of handling the cultural part of the subject, the working group concluded.

Disagreement flared, however, over the working group's proposal to allow immediate local-level registration of religious groups rather than waiting the 15 years required by current law. The 15-year waiting period would continue to apply only to registration at the federal level. Currently, 'new religious formations' with less than 15 years in Russia are allowed to register only as social organizations, which means that they do not have the rights otherwise guaranteed to religious organizations-military chaplaincy, access to public television, certain tax benefits and the right to demand the return of buildings and land from federal and local authorities and so on.

Cyril, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and head of the Russian Orthodox Church's Department of Foreign Church Relations (DFCR), argued that the government's working group had exceeded its mandate. 'Russian law in the religious sphere is quite positive and securely established,' he said. 'There are no conflicts between religions in Russia, nor are there any conflicts fueled by sectarian differences.' He said Russian law contains no limitations on religious activities as such activities are defined worldwide. He said specialists of the Moscow Patriarchate had strong objections to dozens of points in the recommendations of the working group.

The 15-year waiting period for registration was the fruit of a complex and difficult process of negotiation and compromise, the DFCR head said. The rule, he noted, has forestalled the legitimization in Russia of a number of religious movements, including several of an extremist character. 'We consider the arguments against the 15-year term deceptive and dishonest,' the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad bluntly declared. While the amendment writers claim to be seeking greater control over the activities of New Religious Movements, he said, the amendment would give any self-proclaimed religious group all the protections and guarantees of traditional religions, not just the basic rights of prayer, preaching and affiliation. 'Pray if you like to the antarctic penguin!' Metropolitan Cyril expostulated. 'But the law should wait 15 years--long enough to judge whether a group is a danger to society-before deciding on registration.' The Moscow Patriarchate believes that abandonment of the 15-year rule 'is entirely unjustified, will lead to increased activity by NRM and will disrupt the existing interconfessional peace,' he said. 'This is absolutely out of line,' the church leader concluded.

The Orthodox Church also disagrees with the working group's proposal to remove the limits now set by law on foreign missionaries' rights to enter, reside in and work in Russia. 'If we invite a great scientist, a Nobel Prize winner to work here, his activity is limited by the law,' Metropolitan Cyril said. 'But not the activity of Korean 'shakers'? Why the preference?'

The head of the Orthodox Church's Department of Foreign Church Relations went on: 'There are many serious questions on today's agenda that cannot be ignored.' He said reforms in the laws on taxes and landownership had created new 'sore points' between church and state. It is practically impossible under current law for a congregation to get back its church, he said. At the same time, museums continue to hold in their collections, and inaccessible to the public, many items of religious significance. 'We have got to begin the process of changing this,' Metropolitan Cyril said. On the matter of schools teaching the cultural aspects of religion, the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate saw no difficulty. This should be part of the school program, he said. 'The people have a right to study their own history!' he declared.

The Mufti of Perm Region, Mukhamedgadin Kozin, who is also first deputy Supreme Mufti of the Islamic Spiritual Leadership, also opposed any hasty action to change the 15-year rule on registration. In addition, he called for the addition to the law of a concept of 'religious tourism' (pilgrimage) and for a thorough review of tax policies. 'Old Believers in Perm Region have begun building a church, but the tax on the land comes to 400,000 rubles a year,' the mufti said. 'That is as much as the cost of construction.'

Kozin said vagueness in the law has created a situation in which Moslems find themselves unable to gain possession of virtually any of their rightful properties, whether buildings or land. The Mufti of Perm said he found that difficult to reconcile with the 'drumbeating' of prosecutors and militia in the region about the freedom to sell and distribute extremist religious literature.

The Congress of Jewish Religious and Social Organizations in Russia also backed the 15-year rule for 'newcomer' groups. 'I would leave that rule,' Zinovy Kogan, the Congress' chairman, stated, adding that Jews also want to regain confiscated and stolen sacred objects, including Torah scrolls, now in museum collections. 'They are holy objects to Jews, and the museums have no need for them.' Kogan also noted, perhaps with a touch of humor, that the planned ending of free public transportation for the retired had religious implications, since it would make it harder for grandmothers to accustom their grandsons to their religion.

Many hearing participants, particularly representatives of Russia's Moslem communities, expressed great concern about the spread of Wahabbism, a phenomenon that Hadzhi Makhachev, deputy chairman of the State Duma's Committee on Religious and Social Organizations, called very evident in the North Caucasus. 'At first, the attitude to the Wahabbites was much the same as to bear- or penguin-worshipers,' he said. 'However, with financial support from abroad, they have become very strong.' And a real threat, he added. Makhachev called for government control of the education of children in religious schools.

It appears that the unanimity of Russia's traditional religious confessions against revocation of the 15-year rule will force legislators to drop this recommendation of the working group. Discussion of the permissibility of religious instruction in schools continues.