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Russia: Moscow Roundtable Debates Controversial Religion Law

A controversial deadline for religious groups in Russia to register has come and gone, and a roundtable discussion was held in Moscow yesterday to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country. Participants criticized not only the deadline, but also the general spirit of the law on religion that designates the Russian Orthodox Church as having a dominant role in spiritual life. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini attended the roundtable and files this report.

Moscow, 2 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A deadline for the registration of religious groups in Russia -- as called for under a 1997 law -- has expired, leaving many religious groups without the official status needed to fully exercise their activities.

Presidential human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov says around 30 percent of religious organizations -- or about 4,500 groups -- did not re-register with the Justice Ministry or local department before the 31 December deadline -- while the Russian Justice Ministry says only 10 percent will not be registered.

According to the 1997 law on "freedom of conscience and religious unions," the failure to re-register means a group cannot have legal status. In practice this means the group would have a problem opening a bank account, renting offices or places of worship, or distributing literature. Registration is especially difficult for religious organizations that cannot prove that they have been present in Russia for more than 15 years.

At the roundtable in Moscow yesterday, representatives from human rights groups and NGOs discussed the registration problem and also what many see as a more important problem of the 1997 law: that it grants the Russian Orthodox Church a privileged relationship with the state. Participants say this violates the principles inherent in the notion of a secular state.

The preamble of the law sets apart Russian Orthodoxy, other religions that it calls "traditional" (specifically named in the law are Buddhism, Judaism, Islam), and others that it calls "nontraditional." The preamble recognizes the "special role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the development of Russia's spirituality and culture," but it does not assign any specific rights to this status.

Lev Levinson is a member of the presidential human rights commission. He explains the law's problem this way:

"The equality of religious unions isn't just hanging in the air by itself. It is the result of a secular state. So I think any discussion of freedom of conscience should begin not with [denouncing] this or that faith. That is secondary. What comes first is that the principle of the secular state is being violated. Because where does this equality [of faiths] come from? It comes from the fact that the state is neutral with respect to religion, and this neutrality is the consequence of secularism. And when [the state] stops being neutral, preferences for one or several regions appear."

Levinson warns that what he calls the discriminatory spirit of the law in favor of the Orthodox Church is already seen in practice. For instance, he notes that a church was built last year with funds from the Defense Ministry. He also notes many Orthodox priests have accompanied Russian troops to Chechnya, while Muslim, Protestant, and Jewish soldiers do not have a representative of their own religion.

Concerning the registration issue, the ombudsman's office says it has registered about half a dozen complaints so far from groups that were refused registration.

According to the Keston Institute of Oxford, which monitors religious freedom in China, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, among other cases, a Muslim group in Ulyanovsk was not re-registered possibly because they were accused of being "Wahabbi" extremists.

Officials have admitted some registration mistakes, such as occurred recently with the Salvation Army. But they have refused to consider registering other groups. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, said they are now challenging in court the registration refusal by a Moscow district government because of their rejection of blood transfusions. They have, however, been registered in other regions.

Ombudsman Mironov said he had written a letter to President Vladimir Putin in November asking him to propose an amended version of the law that extends the registration deadline to 2003 and purges the law of its discriminatory measures.

Mironov's deputy, Alexey Lebedev, says Mironov did not get a very positive response:

"In the response, we were told that since registration was over why bring up the issue again. So we are in a strange position from a legal point of view, where the law is valid but in many ways contradicts international agreements, Russia's international obligations, and the Russian Constitution."

Mironov was also expected to bring up the possibility of extending the registration issue in a meeting today with Duma speaker Genady Seleznyov.

Some human rights organizers claim that fears of local discriminatory laws and artificial bureaucratic hurdles may have kept hundreds of groups from even attempting to register.

But both the Russian Justice Ministry and human rights watchdogs say it is too early yet to reach any definitive conclusions.