by Lawrence A. Uzzell,
Keston News Service, 8 October 1996

When provincial governments in Russia enact laws narrowing religious freedom, western observers usually see the Orthodox Church as the principal force pressuring them from behind the scenes. But recent events in Sverdlovsk oblast, in the Ural Mountains 900 miles east of Moscow, suggest that this interpretation is not always correct. As of early October the oblast's legislature is on the verge of passing what would be one of the harshest of these new provincial laws in spite of the public opposition of the local Orthodox bishop Nikon.

The Sverdlovsk legislature gave the legislation preliminary approval ('first reading') on 24 July, and is scheduled to take it up for its decisive 'second

reading' on 9 October. Unlike most such laws and administrative regulations elsewhere in Russia, Sverdlovsk's proposed version explicitly targets not just foreign religious groups but domestic Russian ones as well. In an unprecedented joint statement presented to a legislative hearing on 1 October, local Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Old Believer and Muslim clergy denounced the bill as a threat to believers of all confessions.

But in defiance of this broad religious alliance, most of the deputies present at the 1 October hearing informally expressed support of the proposal. One of the bill's opponents, TATYANA TAGYEVA (adviser on church-state relations to the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the oblast's largest city), said after the hearing that her side had clearly lost and predicted that the legislation

would easily sweep to final passage the following week.

The Moscow historian and sociologist of religion SERGEI FILATOV told Keston News Service that the situation in Sverdlovsk confirms that the Urals region is one of the weakest in Russia for all religious faiths, including Orthodoxy. Government officials in this region, he said, tend to 'assume that the very existence of religion automatically leads to conflict' and to react to religious disagreements with 'confusion, misunderstanding and irritation'. One result is soviet-style legislation which denies basic rights to believers of all faiths, not just Protestants and other minorities.

The joint statement by Bishop Nikon and other religious leaders charged that the oblast legislature had failed to let any of them see the text of the bill

approved in July. 'If one follows the spirit of the law', said the joint statement, 'within a three-month period all of the believers of the traditional confessions must be enrolled on the registration books, since each of them is

a propagator of his creed'.

Provisions of the Sverdlovsk bill include the following:

--The preamble states that the regulations which follow are necessary for the 'defence of the interests of the populace and the preservation of social tranquillity ("spokoistvie")'. The underlying assumption, opponents charge, is that religion as such is a threat to the public interest.

--Article 1, section 5 defines 'missionary activities' ('missionerskaya deyatelnost') as 'activities of representatives of religious organisations aimed at the spreading of their creeds or religious doctrines by means of preaching

and religious-educational work among the populace and by means of the organisation of various public religious measures'. By this definition almost anything which an organised church body does, such as a worship service open to the public, is 'missionary activity' and thus subject to state regulation.

--Article 3, section 1 states that foreign missions and missionaries may operate within the oblast 'only by invitation of registered Russian religious associations'.

--Article 3, section 2 states that 'Activities of religious missions (missionaries) which have not undergone registration in accordance with the present law are forbidden on the territory of the oblast.' This provision would enable local authorities to ban groups such as the Baptist 'initsiativniki', which refuse on principle to register with the state.

--Article 3, section 6 forbids the 'presentation by organisations or private persons of premises for the accommodation of missions, their branches, or missionaries without the consent of the organs of local government'. Town and other local authorities would thus get veto power over private real-estate transactions involving religious groups.

--Article 5, section 1 requires a religious group seeking official registration in the oblast to present the oblast's Directorate of Justice with an application describing its 'purpose, goals and character', its 'sacred book', its 'organisational/legal structure' and its 'system for attracting new members'.

--Article 5, section 7 states that after a religious group has applied for registration, the oblast authorities may 'appeal for a decision about the character of its creed to an "Expert-Consultative Council on Questions of Freedom of Conscience and Creeds Attached to the Staff of the Governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast" ' ('obratitsya za zaklyucheniem o kharaktere veroucheniya v "ekspertno-konsultativny sovet po voprosam svobody sovesti i veroispovedanii pri administratsii Gubernatora Sverdlovskoi oblasti" '). On the basis of this council's findings the authorities are specifically authorised to reject applications for registration.

--Article 6, section 2 directs this 'Expert-Consultative Council' to evaluate the 'basic dogmas, rituals, and relations to cultural traditions' of

religious organisations and to analyse 'the social-psychological consequences' of their activities.

--Article 7, section 2 states that registration may denied to a religious group if it preaches 'religious dissension' ('religioznaya rozn'), or is harmful to 'psychological and moral health', or 'insults the feelings of citizens in connection with their relations to other confessions'.

Ironically, this legislation originally began as a response to an appeal made

by many of the religious leaders who now oppose the bill in its current form. In 1995 these leaders asked the oblast authorities to take action against 'totalitarian sects'. A closed session of the oblast legislature then took this basic idea and developed it further into a plan to enact regulations on all faiths. Two people who played especially important roles were N.A. VORONIN, the chairman of the oblast legislature's religion committee, and ALEKSANDRE MEDVEDEV, adviser to the oblast governor on church-state relations. During the soviet period the latter worked as an instructor in 'scientific atheism'.

copyright Keston News Service