Orthodox Church Body Seeks Tighter Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Author: Lawrence A. Uzzell


by Lawrence A. Uzzell

By pushing for a tougher crack-down on religious minorities than several key secular officials are willing to accept, the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations may end up ensuring that Russia's 1990 law protecting freedom of conscience remains unchanged. Rumoured disagreements between the department's head, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, and Patriarch Aleksei II came into the open at a September 27 hearing on a bill narrowing religious freedom which had received preliminary approval from the Duma in July.

In a striking series of omissions, Patriarch Aleksei's key representative at the hearing failed to endorse or even to discuss the most radical of the amendments proposed by Kirill's department and endorsed by the 'Our Home is Russia' parliamentary faction of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, but to date not embraced by the Duma as a whole. He thus indirectly confirmed what a member of Chernomyrdin's staff told Keston News Service on September 25: "Kirill's position is clearly different from Aleksei's." The prime minister's aide predicted that if the amendments proposed by the Department of External Church Relations are added to the July bill, "it will not become law."

Another highlight of the September 27 hearing was chairman Valeri Borshchov's maneuvering to place himself and the Duma's religion committee as 'moderates', supporting a position somewhere between Metropolitan Kirill's and that of the most militant defenders of religious freedom such as Moscow journalist Yakov Krotov. By giving Krotov the lead-off position among the hearing's outside witnesses, even ahead of those representing the Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Church, Borshchov made his own proposed amendments to the Duma's July bill look like the ideally balanced compromise.

Formally the September 27 hearing took place under the auspices of the executive branch. It was conducted in one of the presidential staff's plush, tightly guarded buildings on Moscow's Old Square (formerly the home of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee) in the form of a session of a human-rights panel which gives advice to President Yeltsin. But in substance the panel's meeting was really a legislative hearing, led by Duma deputy Borshchov and Duma religion committee aide Vyacheslav Polosin. Not one official from the executive branch even spoke, though Borshchov's aides distributed copies of a statement from Ruslan Orekhov of Yeltsin's legal staff, which dismissed every one of Metropolitan Kirill's nine proposed amendments as unwise or unconstitutional.

At this hearing, as in earlier debates on new religious legislation, the most controversial issue continued to be the rights of foreign religious organizations. Responding to minority religious leaders such as Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, the Apostolic Administrator for Roman Catholics in European Russia, Borshchov unveiled a new amendment to the July bill which would give the term "foreign religious organization" a specific legal definition: an organization "formed by foreign citizens and operating outside the borders of the Russian Federation." Borshchov's aide Polosin told the hearing that without this definition, a group of, say, Roman Catholics all of whom are Russian citizens could be considered "foreign."

About 20 of Russia's provincial governments, said Polosin, have already enacted what he called "unconstitutional" laws or executive decrees against foreign missionaries; Kaliningrad's, for example, states that any religious group with a center located outside Russia is a "foreign" organization. Udmurtia's, he said, is even harsher: it would allow local authorities to classify a visiting preacher from any other Russian province as a "foreigner."

"This is of course nonsense," said Polosin. "If Russian citizens join with each other within Russia, of course their organization is Russian."

But Polosin also stressed that his and Borshchov's new amendment would not require the state to grant registration to foreign religious groups. "It's an optional process; if there's something doubtful the state can refuse," he said.

In sharp contrast to Borshchov's position, Metropolitan Kirill's department has continued to push for its amendment which would permit foreign religious groups to operate within Russia only as guests of Russian churches. The amendment, which states that "independent religious activity by foreign religious organizations is forbidden" was part of a package of nine distributed in the name of Metropolitan Kirill's department at the September hearing.

But Viktor Kalinin, legal advisor to Patriarch Aleksei and a former official of the defunct USSR's Council for Religious Affairs, said nothing about this amendment-- or even about the general question of foreign religious organizations-- in his statement at the hearing. Instead he stressed a proposed amendment which would allow the state to subsidise the church's charitable activities.

Asked afterward by Keston News Service if his statement to the hearing reflected the position of Metropolitan Kirill's department, Kalinin emphasized that he is not subordinate to that department. He said that he had agreed to address the hearing at the direct personal request of Patriarch Aleksei.

Only toward the hearing's end did a representative of Metropolitan Kirill's department get the floor for a short statement. Father Vsevolod Chaplin said that Russia's current laws improperly allow foreign religious organizations "to create artificial structures here" even if they do not have any believers in Russia. He conceded that the amendments proposed by his colleagues may be "imperfect" and "may even partly contradict the Constitution"-- but he insisted that "the law now in force does not anticipate a whole range of conflicts; these amendments are definitely a step forward."

Borshchov asked Father Chaplin how Metropolitan Kirill's proposed ban on independent foreign religious organizations would apply to the Anglican parish in Moscow. (St Andrew's Church, built in the 19th century by and for the British community in Moscow and forcibly closed under Stalin, is now functioning again with a mostly expatriate congregation under a priest of the Church of England.) Father Chaplin replied that "any ten foreign residents," just like any ten Russians, would still have the right to create a congregation in Russia. He said that such a congregation should not automatically be considered a "representative body" of a foreign religious organization.

After the hearing Keston News Service asked Father Chaplin whether his statement reflected the Patriarch's views as well as Metropolitan Kirill's. He replied that he had expressed only his own personal views-- but added that all nine of his department's proposed amendments were endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole.

At the opposite pole from Father Chaplin, the September session heard from two journalists widely known as human-rights advocates, Yakov Krotov and Vladimi Oiven. Krotov was even more forceful than Father Chaplin in criticiszing the Duma's July bill as unacceptable-- in his view not because it would give the state too little power over religion, but too much. He said that the proposed system of registering foreign religious groups would require Russian state officials to ask the foreign ministries of other countries various questions about those countries' religious organizations, and predicted that governments like that of the United States would simply refuse to answer such questions.

Krotov said that July bill includes so many changes to the 1990 law which is now in force that it would in effect replace that law with a qualitatively different system. Among its most dangerous provisions, he said, are those allowing the state to ban religious activities which allegedly threaten state security or to enforce a church's internal canon laws against the church itself. He also charged that the bill's Article 12 would allow the state not only to cancel a religious group's registration but to forbid its activities altogether.

Krotov identified three basic ideological models for church-state relations. First, he said, is the American model, which is the most democratic-- the one he prefers and the one embodied in Russia's 1990 law. Second is the Greek model of a state church, which he said was the inspiration for the proposals from the Moscow Patriarchate. He said that the Duma's July bill follows a middling option, somewhat like that of France-- not totalitarian in itself "but a step toward totalitarianism."

Borshchov challenged Krotov's interpretation of Article 12 but agreed that "your observations are in many ways just." Nevertheless, he said, the Duma has to respond to the existing concrete political situation, in which Russia's provincial governments are enacting even more restrictive local measures.

Commenting on Krotov's ideological categories, Father Chaplin criticized what he called "attempts to impose on Russia models which are not compatible with European experience." Such models, he said, include both the Soviet and the American schemes of church-state relations; as the only country in the world created by immigrants, the U.S. has a system which would not work in any European country.

Fr Chaplin said that recent experience in Russia has shown that "religion can have a negative influence, both on the state and on the individual." Russia should therefore protect not only a person's right to speak about his religion, he said, but also his right not to listen to a preacher of another faith.

Also responding to Krotov, Kalinin said that the existing 1990 law clearly needs to be changed because, among other things, it recognizes the state teaching of atheism. (Krotov countered that the law does not use the term "state atheism.") The Patriarch's representative said that international agreements permit the banning of religious activities which threaten state security, and that the current law's provision allowing state subsidies for the restoration of church buildings could be a precedent for subsidies to church charities. He added that even though the July bill is insufficient, he hoped that some form of legislation would be enacted this year.

In addition to the issues discussed by Kalinin and Father Chaplin, one of the new amendments proposed by Metropolitan Kirill's department would ban activities "insulting the religious feelings of citizens." Another would strike from the July bill a provision which bars "the establishment of any advantages or limitations" for one religious group against others.

Borshchov called on participants in the hearing to submit by ene end of September any further amendments which they would like the Duma to consider. His aide Lev Levinson told Keston News Service afterward that the Duma's religion committee will then submit a revised bill to the Duma, which will probably take it up for a "second reading" in November.

================================================================== EWTN NEWS FEATURES FOR OCT. 09, 1996

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