CHURCH WITHOUT WALLS
ECB church of the village of Verkhnebakanskii
Religiia i pravo, 7 September 2020
In late August 2020, lawyers and experts visited Krasnodar territory, which is the second region within the context of the Svoboda28 project organized by the Slavic Legal Center along with the Institute of the Rule of Law, with informational support of the publication Religiia i Pravo and the SPEKTR News Bureau.
For the past few years, a religious group of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (EKhB) of the village of Verknebakinskii of Krasnodar territory have confronted difficulties in exercising their constitutional right to freedom of religious confession. Before the summer of last year, the congregation conducted worship services on Sundays in a private home that was owned by the leadership of the religious group. In July 2019, court bailiffs sealed the living room of the residential building where the church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists conducted the worship services. By a court decision, a prohibition was placed on the use of the plot of land and the residence located on it for religious purposes by the owner and other persons. However, from the time of its construction and use to the present, the building has retained the characteristics of a residence and it has been used by the owner and persons living in it in accordance with its specific intent—as a residence. Experts of the Svoboda28 project were persuaded of this when they visited the aforementioned house.
"The bailiffs' interpretation of the court's decision, which forbade the use of the residential building for religious purposes, was surprising. But the spacious living room was sealed by the bailiffs, which the citizens also used as their residence. Therefore there was here not only a violation of the right to freedom of religious confession but also an unjustified restriction of the right of ownership guaranteed by article 35 of the constitution of the Russian Federation," the attorney Sergei Chugunov commented on the bailiffs' action.
On 26 March 2020, the administration of the municipality of the city of Novorossisk filed a lawsuit in the Primorsky district court of the city of Novorossiisk in the name of an unspecified circle of persons against the owner of the residence requesting the demolition of the residence that was being used for other than its intended purpose, to wit, for conducting worship services, rituals, and ceremonies.
The position of the administration of the municipality of the city of Novorossiisk violates the ruling of the Russian Constitutional Court of 14 November 2019, No. 35-P, in which the Constitutional Court entirely reasonably indicated that "according to point 2 of article 16 of the federal law 'On freedom of conscience and religious association,' worship services and other religious rituals and ceremonies are conducted without hindrance not only in liturgical premises, buildings, and structures, but also in other places, particularly in premises owned by religious organizations, or provided to them on another basis, for conducting their charter activity, including residential premises. The confirmation of such a possibility is consistent with the purpose of residential premises, which are intended to satisfy not only the physical needs of citizens, but also their spiritual interests as an intrinsic element of the development and improvement of personality, including the spiritual needs of believers that are exercised on the basis of freedom of religious confession, provided that the use of the residence takes into account the rights and legal interests of persons living within it and of neighbors, the requirements of fire safety, sanitation and hygienic, ecological, and other requirements, and also in compliance with rules of the use of residential remises. . . . The provision to a religious organization by citizens who own the residential premises of the opportunity to conduct worship services and other religious rituals and ceremonies and also the use of the address of the residence as the address of the religious organization are not violations of law. . . ."
Such actions have led to the emergence of tension on the part of the public and also to distress for believers. And as a consequence, other difficulties have arisen for the joint profession of religious convictions, such as in the spring of 2019, when a group of representatives of city government, police, personnel of security agencies, and cossacks burst into the celebration of a worship service of the Baptist church in the village of Verkhnebakanskii. As eyewitnesses explained, the "sudden guests" prohibited filming, threatened the parishioners, and prevented the conduct of the service. At the same time, they gave no explanation of their actions.
As of the present, the believers have no place to meet for conducting joint worship services, since they had previously been refused rental of several locations precisely because, according to representatives of the congregation, of the accumulation of problems and the fears of owners to fall out of favor with the powers that be. The believers have been forced to gather in the woods for worship services.
"This is simply unimaginable for modern Russia, where everybody is guaranteed, individually and collectively with others, the right to freedom of religious confession. Only during the times of persecution, during soviet times, were believers forced to conduct worship services in the woods. The logic of those who essentially have driven people out-of-doors is completely unclear. Why is this being done? Will the government really strengthen public safety by forcing dozens of believers to conduct their prayer meetings in the woods? The leader of the congregation has a large family of 6 children and his father and mother have 52 grandchildren; is it really impossible for them to gather together in order to pray and read sacred books in the home that belongs to them? In my view this is a short-sighted decision, since such actions will lead to nothing besides increasing tensions. To say nothing of the absence of legal bases about which the Russian Constitutional Court has said everything," explained Vladimir Riakhovsky, an attorney and member of the Council on Human Rights.
"According to information of the 'Freedom of conscience, thought, and religion in 2020' (article28.ru) project, Krasnodar territory is among the regions in which, if trends are maintained, violations of the right to freedom of religious confession may, within the course of one or two months, acquire a systematic character. As far as possible, we are trying to monitor the situation in this region and respond promptly to reports of violations, providing along with partnering lawyers and attorneys qualified legal aid and legal recommendations," attorney Stanislav Kulov commented.
The congregation of Evangelical Christians-Baptists was visited by Vladimir Riakhovsky, an attorney and managing partner of the Slavic Legal Center and member of the Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the president of the R.F.; Stanislav Kulov, an attorney, director of the Institute of the Rule of Law, and editor-in-chief of the internet publication Religiia i pravo; and Sergei Chugunov, an attorney and chairman of the board of the Institute of the Rule of Law.
The Svoboda28 project is an attempt to call attention of both the expert and religious communities and the bodies of government to problems in the religious sphere. It is necessary to conclude that, with the exception of a few high-profile cases, systematic violations of law in several regions remain outside the field of vision of the expert and religious communities. By uniting efforts, civil rights advocates and experts hope to change the developing situation, providing the necessary legal and informational support to work out mechanisms to counteract the sometimes openly illegal application of the law. (tr. by PDS, posted 14 September 2020)
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