RUSSIA: Supreme Court upholds Bible college closure
Today (20 May) Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the Vladivostok-based charismatic "Faith in Action" Bible College should be closed down for conducting religious education without a state licence. Afterwards, the defence lawyer told Forum 18 News Service that the college's parent church, the Church of the Living God, could now be pressurised by the regional authorities for conducting unlicensed professional education activity.
At the appeal hearing in the Russian capital attended by Forum 18, Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Moscow-based Slavic Legal Centre argued that, according to Article 6 of Russia's 1997 religion law, a basic feature of a religious association is "the teaching of religion and the religious upbringing of its followers". It was this that the Bible College had been engaged in, he said, and not "professional religious education for preparing clergy and religious personnel", which is indeed subject to state licensing under Article 19 of the same law.
Russia's 1992 education law considers activity to be "educational" only if students receive a qualification and a certificate of education at the end of their study. Ryakhovsky maintained that the regional court had not provided sufficient evidence of this, such as leaving certificates. He also claimed that there had been no investigation into whether the disputed activity was being conducted by the Bible College rather than the institution's parent church, the Church of the Living God, which is situated at the same legal address. Citing the key participation in the regional court case of representatives of the local FSB (former KGB) and state department for religious affairs, Ryakhovsky remarked "What sort of witnesses are these? This isn't 1981!" and asked the three Supreme Court judges to overturn the verdict.
The main judge interrupted to clarify whether the defence was claiming that the Bible College did not need a licence to engage in the activity it had been conducting. On being told that this was so, and that "no one received an education" according to the definition in Russia's education law, he remarked: "Well, they can't have been working very effectively if no one was taught anything!"
In a brief statement, a representative from the public prosecutor's office said that letters by the director of the Bible College, Pastor Aleksei Mishchenko, obtained during a check-up on the church following several complaints by local citizens, proved that educational activity as defined by the law was indeed being conducted. After several minutes in recess, the three judges announced their ruling that the Primorsky Krai verdict was to remain in force.
Following the hearing, Vladimir Ryakhovsky commented to Forum 18 that he did not see much prospect in filing for a re-hearing at the Supreme Court, or in referring the case to the European Court, since the issue at stake rested upon a disputed evaluation of evidence. The effect of the verdict was primarily only psychological, in his view, since the church should be able to continue seminars and lectures under its own auspices. However, he acknowledged that the Primorsky Krai authorities could begin to pressurise the Church of the Living God by accusing it of conducting unlicensed professional education activity: "But that would be a separate dispute".
21 April 2003
On 21 March Primorsky Krai regional court in Russia's Far East ruled to close down the charismatic Faith in Action Bible College in Vladivostok. Speaking to Forum 18 News Service, the public prosecutor's representative in the case, Nina Saiko, defended the court-ordered closure, arguing that the college was conducting "educational activity" without a licence in violation of the education law. The college's lawyer Aleksei Kolupayev insisted to Forum 18 that it was not conducting educational activity "but simple study for religious believers, a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Russian Constitution." Others claim that the FSB (former KGB) has been harassing the college and looking for excuses to close it down.
15 April 2003
Local officials met Buddhist and Russian Orthodox leaders in Russia's southern, traditionally Buddhist republic of Kalmykia on 1 April to discuss their common "concern" about the growing influence of religious communities they deem untraditional. One official told Forum 18 News Service that officials were concerned about "incorrect trends" within Buddhism in Kalmykia, while the Orthodox were worried by the presence of Adventists, Baptists and Pentecostals. Kalmykia's Orthodox Bishop Zosima told Forum 18 that after Orthodox preaching, Adventists had been "cleared out" of the settlement of Iki-Burul and Russians in the previously Baptist-dominated settlement of Yashalta were returning to Orthodoxy.
14 April 2003
Foreign missionaries working with Protestant communities in Kalmykia, the Lord's Love evangelical church and the Salvation Army, have been barred from Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Citing the FSB (ex-KGB), they have been attacked in the local state press as "western spies" who "frequently operate within various missionary organisations, hiding behind lofty charitable ideals." Commenting on efforts by the Salvation Army, Christian Missionary Alliance and Mission Aviation Fellowship to overturn entry bans, the newspaper said this "just goes to show how greatly intelligence agencies are interested in their presence in Kalmykia." After the article described the Salvation Army as "one of the most powerful totalitarian sects in the world", it was banned from holding events for children, Forum 18 has been told. Despite this, local authorities still seek the aid of Protestants to help needy people the authorities cannot help and to assist with anti-drug programmes. Forum 18 has also learned that it is planned to change the way religious communities represent their interests to local authorities, to the disadvantage of religious communities which are not Orthodox, Muslim or Buddhist.