JUSTICE MINISTRY GUIDELINES SOFTEN INTERPRETATION OF NEW RELIGION LAW
Keston News Service
Thursday 22 January
Russia's Ministry of Justice has openly declared one section of the new law on church-state relations to be unconstitutional in informal guidelines recently distributed to provincial officials. The guidelines, designed to help officials interpret the complex and sometimes contradictory law until definitive regulations are published, are in general less restrictive than the draft regulations which are now under discussion in Moscow. But they still leave many question open to doubt.
One parliamentary opponent of the new law told Keston News Service that overall the Justice Ministry's guidelines, mailed to the provinces in late December and obtained by Keston in January, are 'fairly liberal'. The clearest example of this is the Ministry's comment on the law's controversial '15-year rule': 'We suggest that article 27's requirement of annual re- registration of religious organisations already registered, and the limiting of their rights during this period, contradicts article 54 of the Russian Federation's Constitution, according to which a law establishing or increasing responsibility may not have retroactive force.'
If the formal regulations should be amended to be consistent with these informal guidelines, some - but not all - of the worst fears of religious minorities in Russia would be removed. For example, the guidelines suggest that each successive annual re- registration of religious organisations which do not meet the 15- year rule need not be as laborious as their initial registration - that an organisation could simply be required to inform the local registering organ of the continuation of its activities.
On the other hand, the guidelines state that religious organisations may be founded only by permanent residents of the Russian Federation - defined as people who have received Russia's notoriously hard-to-get long-term residence permits - and that only such residents may be employed in any capacity by religious organisations. Since most foreigners, including many refugees from other former Soviet republics, lack such permits, this interpretation could threaten a broad range of clergy - including the majority of Roman Catholic priests in Russia, who have only short-term visas.
Unlike the draft regulations, the informal guidelines specifically state that unofficial documents are acceptable forms of proof that an organisation existed more than 15 years ago in Russia; they mention 'data from state registration and local records of the former Council for Religious Affairs...archival materials, judicial decisions, testimony of witnesses or other forms of proof.' But they still fail to clarify the status of religious bodies which existed for decades before 1917 but were then liquidated by the Bolsheviks. The guidelines also suggest that each provincial government should decide the question of 'proof' according to its own 'appropriate normative legal acts', which could be read as an invitation to more restrictive interpretations.
For the first time in such an official form and in writing, the guidelines echo the repeated statements of Russian government spokesmen that centralised religious organisations are exempt from the 15-year rule: '...only local religious organisations which do not have confirmation of their membership in a corresponding centralised religious organisation much present proofs of a 15-year period of existence. The requirement of a 15- year duration of activities does not apply to centralised religious organisations.'
The Ministry suggests that provincial officials use not only the new law's provisions in relation to religious organisations but also those of Russia's civic code and law on non-commercial organisations - which are in general less restrictive.
The guidelines state that registering organs may conduct monitoring ('proverka') of the activities of religious bodies only after informing the leaders of those bodies in advance, and never 'during worship services, religious rituals, ceremonies and other liturgical events'. But they also suggest that monitoring can include the gathering of information from the communications of private citizens. Local authorities are told that they are specifically authorised to consider information about religious bodies produced by investigations conducted by the security organs or the tax service.
The guidelines fail to assuage fears about the new law's vague provisions on the 'territorial sphere of activities' of a religious organisation. They state that the sphere of activity of a local religious organisation is only its own city, town or village - not even its province. A centralised religious organisation, according to the guidelines, can be active only within the provinces within which it has local religious organisations as members. This interpretation could be used, for example, to keep minority confessions from sending missionaries into any province in which they do not already have organised congregations. (END)