Churches in Russia Hail Ruling on Religion

Article excerpt

Russia's Constitutional Court has handed down a liberal interpretation of a much-disputed law from 1997 that governs religious activity in the country. The ruling from Russia's highest legal authority will make it easier for some religious groups to operate in Russia. However, the court also upheld the principles of the 1997 law, which is intended to restrict the activities of sects and foreign religious groups.

The ruling was announced November 23 following a complaint made in October 1998 by a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Yaroslavl, Central Russia, and a Pentecostal group in Abakan, Western Siberia. In Yaroslavl the local prosecutor had tried to close down the local branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that the group did not have papers to prove it had been there for at least 15 years, as the 1997 law requires. Under the new ruling, they will be able to continue.

"To some degree, it is a victory for the Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious organizations," said Albert Polanski, a spokesman for the complainants. But he added that smaller religious organizations would still have difficulties. When it was enacted in 1997, the new law, which was backed by Russia's largest religious organization, the Orthodox Church, was criticized by many religious groups, human rights advocates and Western governments as discriminatory.

The law created two classes of religious associations. In the first category are "religious organizations" with full rights, such as the Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish faiths; bodies in the second category, that of "religious groups," are those that have been in Russia for less than 15 years. These "religious groups" are not allowed to own property, organize worship in public places, distribute literature or invite clergy to Russia from abroad. Originally the law was retroactive, requiring all organizations registered under a liberal 1991 law on religion to reregister every year.

In its judgment, the court ruled that local religious organizations registered before the new law was passed in September 1997 would retain their status and not be required to register again. Nor will local branches of "centralized" religious organizations which are registered in Moscow and represented in at least three of Russia's 89 regions have to prove that they have been in Russia for 15 years. …