RUSSIA: Presbyterian church to be confiscated?
Its registration liquidated in 2003 for "administrative violations" and with subsequent registration applications denied, the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Mozdok in Russia's North Caucasus now faces the confiscation of its "beautiful Gothic-style" prayer house, church administrator Olga Mazhurova told Forum 18 News Service. The local administration told the congregation in early September that there is enough evidence to file suit for its confiscation, though no date for a court hearing has been set. The church admits it "made mistakes" over the way the church was built without planning permission, but claims it has been blocked from regularising its position due to local suspicion of its foreign connections. Officials at Mozdok district prosecutor's office have refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they are seeking to confiscate the church.
The Mozdok Presbyterians – who are predominantly Russian, Ossetian and Korean but also Armenian and Chechen – have been able to gather freely for worship at their building since the church's registration was liquidated in 2003, Mazhurova told Forum 18. At the beginning of September 2005, however, they were informed by the local administration that there is now sufficient evidence to file suit for the confiscation of their prayer house, she said, although no date for a court hearing has yet been set.
Founded by South Korean missionaries, Emmanuel Church bought two adjacent plots of land in Mozdok in approximately 1997, according to Mazhurova, and then knocked down the two village houses located there. Repeatedly refused planning permission – in her view due to its foreign connections – the church nevertheless completed construction of its 1000-seater "beautiful Gothic-style" prayer house at the site in approximately 2000, she said, hoping to legalise it post factum. "We decided on that course of action because we had no lawyer at the time."
Instead, however, the local authorities began to take note of the church's administrative violations in an atmosphere increasingly hostile towards the Presbyterians, Mazhurova continued. "We didn't have much contact with the local authorities, so they thought the church might be a cover for espionage – there is an aerodrome near here – or conducting anti-Russian activity. Local press articles began to maintain that we were turning people into zombies, almost killing them." When laws became more complex, she added, what had seemed like minor technical violations "snowballed against us".
As well as pointing to the absence of planning permission, Mazhurova told Forum 18 that local officials claimed Emmanuel's English-language classes and medical centre were not properly registered. Pavel Bak of the Moscow-based Pentecostal union to which the church is affiliated told Forum 18 on 20 September that a further violation was considered to have taken place when South Korean and US missionaries working with the Mozdok Presbyterians some years ago overstayed the validity period of their Russian visas. As a result, according to Mazhurova, a local Mozdok court liquidated Emmanuel Church in September 2003. For the next two years, she added, the community tried to register anew without success.
Protestant communities in Russia are increasingly reporting bureaucratic opposition to their church building projects (see F18News 24 August 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=637).
On 21 September, a secretary at Mozdok district public prosecutor's office who was clearly familiar with the situation asked Forum 18 to ring a different number at the same office in several hours' time. He declined to name the official dealing with the Presbyterians' case, but claimed that anyone answering the given number would be able to respond to Forum 18's query, promising to warn staff so that they could seek out relevant documentation in the mean time. Telephoning the number at the appointed time, however, Forum 18 was told that the person dealing with the Presbyterians' case was on holiday. The person who answered claimed that he did not know anything about the case and refused to discuss anything by telephone.
To Forum 18's knowledge, Emmanuel's is the first case in which a religious organisation has been liquidated for purely administrative violations since - and contra to - a 7 February 2002 ruling by Russia's Constitutional Court. Concerning, but not limited to, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army, this stipulated that a religious organisation may be liquidated only if found to be conducting anti-constitutional activity or "properly proven to have ceased its activities". In August 2002 an independent Baptist community in the Pacific port of Vanino founded by US missionary Dan Pollard avoided liquidation as a result of this ruling. Latterly, however, a charismatic church in the Tuvan capital Kyzyl similarly escaped liquidation for minor administrative violations only by voluntarily disbanding (see F18News 18 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=609).
Forum 18 notes that last year's liquidation of the Moscow organisation of Jehovah's Witnesses was ordered on the basis of alleged anti-constitutional activity (see F18News 29 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=289).
For a personal commentary by an Old Believer about continuing denial of equality to Russia's religious minorities see F18News http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570
For more background see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=509
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russi
7 September 2005
While Moscow-based religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev believes the number of foreign religious workers barred from Russia is rising, this is difficult to corroborate as many prefer not to report visa denials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Catholic bishop Clemens Pickel told Forum 18 that the denial of a new visa to Fr Janusz Blaut in October 2004 after ten years in Russia (the eighth such Catholic visa denial) has left his Vladikavkaz parish without a priest. Yet Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer and Protestant overseer Hugo Van Niekerk – both denied visas this summer – have once more been granted them. Of the 52 excluded religious workers since 1998 known to Forum 18 – whether Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon - only a handful have been allowed to return to Russia. Officials and the media have often stoked fears of "religious expansion" which, they argue, represents a threat to Russia's "national security".
30 August 2005
One of the most troublesome issues for religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found, is gaining property. In places where historical worship buildings survive, there can be insufficient numbers of religious believers to claim or take care of them. This is particularly so for Orthodox churches in rural areas, and for Jewish and Lutheran communities. In cases where churches have been sold to private owners, or belong to a local authority, Catholic, Orthodox and Old Believer communities have often failed to regain them. But this situation is variable, Muslim communities, for example, having a mixed record of success in regaining mosques. Catholic and Old Believer churches have been sometimes given to Russian Orthodox dioceses, despite Catholic and Old Believer communities existing in these places. Some local authorities finance the construction of new worship premises for confessions they favour, but the cultural importance of historic Russian Orthodox property can prevent its return. Protestants, Old Believers, Molokans and Muslims have had problems in acquiring land for new building, as have other alternative Orthodox communities.
24 August 2005
Protestant communities wanting to build a place of worship face increasing obstruction from state authorities, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Other religious confessions also encounter such problems. For example, a protracted series of discussions and protests have still not enabled Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to either obtain a new construction site or official rights to the land beneath a building it owns. Similar problems have been encountered by Protestant churches elsewhere in Russia. Protestants have often told Forum 18 of their suspicions that local Orthodox clergy are instrumental in blocking Protestant construction plans, through private discussions between state officials and local Orthodox clergy. Unusually, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the Volga city of Saratov refused Word of Life Pentecostal Church permission to put an advertisement on its own outside wall, "on the basis of letter No. 490 dated 19 April 2005 from the Saratov diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church." Protestant communities also often speak of lengthy and energy-consuming battles to retain worship premises they acquire.