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Fagan Geraldine
RUSSIA: Majority of Proposed Amendments "Against Constitution".


The majority of the hundreds of proposed amendments to Russia's 1997 law on religion - including the introduction of the term "traditional religion" - cannot be adopted because they contradict the country's constitution, Andrei Sebentsov, vice-chairman of the government's Commission for Religious Associations and chairman of the working group currently considering them, told Keston News Service in his office in the Russian parliament building (the White House) in Moscow on 28 November.

Speaking on 15 November at a conference in Moscow organised by the religion faculty of the Russian Academy for State Service (RASS), Sebentsov cited some of the 300 amendments that have been suggested by subjects of the Russian Federation: priority treatment for religions traditional to a particular territory, regulation of activity by religious organisations in schools and kindergartens, monitoring of the foundation and activity of religious groups (those without legal personality status under the law), an increase from three to 10 in the number of local religious organisations required to create a centralised religious organisation, and an increase from 10 to 45 or 50 in the minimum number of founders of a local religious organisation.

Further suggestions have been made elsewhere. Following the 23 October meeting of the government Commission, news agencies quoted chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko as saying that the government would amend the 1997 law in order to curb "the penetration into Russia of extremist religious preachers and sects." Interviewed by Keston on 28 November, however, Sebentsov stressed that this meeting had been of the Commission and not the working group, which had received "no sensible" propositions specifically concerning religious extremism. In his view, Article 14 of the law already gives sufficient grounds for action, while, moreover, "extremism is a separate problem not strictly related to religion: it is sooner a topic for a separate law." Both Dagestan and Tatarstan have proposed related features of their regional religion laws that have been annulled as anticonstitutional, he told Keston, but it is unlikely that either - a ban on Wahhabism (a purist brand of Islam) and a restriction of one ruling body per confession respectively - will be accepted by the working group. So far, said Sebentsov, the regulation of missionaries has not been considered.

Some of the amendments already agreed by the working group, Sebentsov told Keston, include a change from "drawing into" ("vovlecheniye") to "attraction" ("privlecheniye") of minors to religious associations in Article 3, Part 5 - "'drawing into' clearly relates to criminal activity and has no place in a law on freedom" - as well as, in the same article, a change in the ban on teaching religion to minors from "without the agreement of" to "in the absence of objections from" parents or guardians. Due to "interesting and amusing cases," added Sebentsov, the introduction of the right of a religious organisation to create its own internal regulations would also be proposed. He cited the instance of one woman who, after being told she could not enter an Orthodox monastery without a headscarf, had considered taking legal action since the religion law states that no one may be forbidden from taking part in religious worship.

Speaking at a conference on church-state relations in Voronezh on 12 October, another working group member, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, pointed out that the Russian constitution enshrines equality of all religious organisations before the law. However, he also outlined four different levels of social co-operation between the state and, in descending order, 1) the Russian Orthodox Church "and other historical confessions", 2) "traditional Gospel-based churches with a normal reputation in the world - Lutherans, Baptists, Adventists and Pentecostals - those with representatives on the presidential Council", 3) new religious movements, and 4) "those which go against the law." At the RASS conference on 15 November, Kudryavtsev presented a similar scheme but cited different categories: 1) the Russian Orthodox Church and, in certain areas, Islam, 2) "confessions deeply-rooted in Russian society", e.g. Old Belief, 3) Protestant organisations with a history in Russia of more than 100 years, and 4) new organisations which began their activities in Russia in the early 1990s.

In his White House office on 28 November, Sebentsov told Keston that he thought that this arrangement would not be subject to regulation by law: "Agreements can be concluded in practice between ministries and religious organisations, it is a question of desire on their part." When he repeated this comment on 29 November at a round table devoted to the legal defence of religious freedom in Russia, however, the Moscow-based lawyer Galina Krylova, who has acted in a number of religious liberty cases, suggested that the absence of such agreements with religious organisations other than the Russian Orthodox Church was not so much due to religious organisations' lack of desire as discrimination on the part of the government bodies concerned.

Geraldine Fagan,
Keston News Service,
4 December 2001



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