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English version: Slavic Center for Law and Justice hosts roundtable dedicated to the struggle against anti-extremism and the observance of the rights of the faithful in Russia’s regions

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13 Сентября 2010

The situation with religion in the regions of Russia is something that is rather peculiar and it is always varied and paradoxical. Thorough research of each region of our country is easily capable of producing specific surprising aspects. There is no clearness in federal policy in the sphere of religion. On the contrary, there exist many contradictions, as is apparent in many other areas of life in Russia. All these contradictions were highlighted during the roundtable “Opposing extremist activity and the issue of observing citizens’ constitutional rights to religion freedom in Russia’s regions”, which took place on September 6 in Moscow and was organized by the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, together with the Institute of Religion and Law.

This particular roundtable was distinguished not only due to the fact that it involved representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) and the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, but also by the presence of representatives from specific Christian churches from Khakassia, the Khanty-Mansiisky Autonomous Region (KMAR) and Blagoveshchensk. The latter participants came to Moscow especially in order to share their own incredibly outrageous stories about how the churches of the country’s non-traditional religions are treated in Russia’s regions.

According to Anatoliy Pchelintsev, in many regions of Russia, the actions of some state officials and law enforcement officers are aimed at intentionally destroying the stable situation with respect to religion. Acting much like the Soviet government, the Prosecutor's Office in Khakassia, for instance, wants to demolish a Prayer House that belongs to the Pentecostal church ‘Proslavlenie’. By treating the Church in this way, the government is effectively driving out the faithful, who are hard working and have close-knit families, from the country (for instance, at the end of the 1970s, the Vashchenko family sought sanctuary from persecution by the Soviet authorities at the USA embassy). As Mr. Pchelintsev noted, it is necessary to struggle against legal ignorance on the part of law enforcement officers, the Prosecutor's Office and the ‘E’ Center that operates under the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation. In order to do this, it is necessary to publish handbooks, carry out seminars and other activities. Otherwise, government representatives are prone to using doubtful and pseudo-scientific materials and lists of the so-called ‘totalitarian sects’ that are published by odious ‘anti-sect’ organizations.

In Ugra, Khanty-Mansiiskiy Autonomous Region, such ‘totalitarian sects lists’ began to appear suddenly when the region came to be headed by a new person and the government eliminated its position for a payrolled specialist on relations with religious organizations. According to Igor Yanshin, the lawyer and executive director of the Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians in the Khanty-Mansiiskiy Autonomous Region, it was announced at the official level that the authorities were starting to struggle with non-Orthodox churches and believers. The labor and social development department of Ugra, Khanty-Mansiiskiy Autonomous Region, issued an absolutely absurd order on July 30, 2010 (order no. 05-7366/10), which suggests counteracting the activities of so-called ‘sects’ by creating voluntary public militias and checkpoints in organizations, in addition to not allowing these organizations to rent places for public liturgy. The list of ‘sects’, including all Protestant Churches active in the Khanty-Mansiiskiy Autonomous Region, is attached to this order. Many of them have already been sent a notice about the cancelation of their respective lease agreements (for example, this is the case for the Church of Jesus Christ in Nyagan), where organizations held public liturgy. Igor Yanshin underlined that, in fact, the war with the faithful as such – those Russian citizens, who were mentioned on that list of ‘sects’ – has already begun. Yanshin mentioned that the list does not indicate the full names of the churches, but their general names, e.g. ‘Slovo Zhyzni’ (Word of Life) and all of these organizations are now, in practice, considered to be illegal.

In response to Mr. Yanshin’s report, a specialist of state-church relations, Andrey Sebentsov, declared that the cause for indignation is not only the fact that some organizations were included on this list of ‘sects’, but at the very existence and formation of that list, which can be considered extremist as such.

In the city of Sayanogorsk in the Republic of Khakassia, the Prosecutor's Office demands the demolition of a building built for the purposes of holding public liturgy for the Pentecostal Church ‘Proslavlenie’. According to the Church’s pastor Sergey Vashchenko, the Prosecutor’s office and the Federal Security Service are determined to pit the Church’s neighbor, who lives next door and filed claims as to the illegality of the construction and the abuse of his rights, against the church on purpose. The Court resolution states that the church building has to be demolished two days thereafter. Vashchenko noted that his relatives were persecuted in Soviet times, that their children were taken away and sent to orphanages, and that public liturgy was broken up. Sergey Vashchenko declared that “I am 53 years old now. I am a third generation Christian. I have four children and we are not going to move away from Russia. We are worthy of our parents and we will keep on fighting to the end.”

No less emotional was the presentation of Mikhail Darbinyan, the pastor from the ‘Novoe Pokolenie’ Church in Blagoveshchensk (Amur district). His church is one of the largest in the Far East (with a thousand congregants, counting only its official members). The community plays a great role in terms of providing community service in Blagoveshchensk: it feeds the homeless, helps hospitals, organizes cultural events, festivals and theatrical performances, sport competitions and has its own rehabilitation center for drug addicts. According to Mr. Darbinyan, the Church works to bolster the position of the Russian state in the Far East, calling upon its church members to help resolve the region’s demographic problems (i.e. the pastor has five children). However, starting from April 2010, the local Prosecutor’s Office had opened five separate cases against the Church, specifically  in regard to the Church’s distribution of video material. In filing these lawsuits with the Court, the Prosecutor complained about the Church’s video material and with the request to declare the issuance of video material by the Church as illegal, since, according to "guardian of the rule of law", they seem to be using methods known as neuro-linguistic programming, which is subject to being licensed as a medically-related activity. The argument put forward by the plaintiff is that the Church does not have such a license and therefore, its movies, for example, with sermons by a pastor or events dedicated to the anniversary of the Church’s establishment, can allegedly cause harm to one’s health. (During the roundtable, participants viewed a film about the ‘Novoe Pokolenie’ Church, which was apparently considered harmful to one’s health, but nobody suffered in this relation.)

The ‘Novoe Pokolenie’ Church has declared its ambitions in Blagoveshchensk, noted lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky, in terms of plans to create the first theological seminary in the region. The endless inspections began after that, including its library, which yielded no results. Extremism, in Mr. Ryakhovsky’s opinion, seemed to be happening on the basis of pre-fabricated ideas. Moreover, the local Prosecutor’s Office announced that wants to arrange legal proceedings against the Pentecostals as an example for all, starting his campaign with an outright ban of their activity throughout Russia. In the 1990s, there were previously legal proceedings over claims against Protestant churches against use of hypnosis methods (namely in Magadan). At that time, it was proven that all of the accusations were groundless, but apparently, we have not learned anything from history. Everything is repeating itself again, as was underlined by Vladimir Ryakhovsky.

According to Sebentsov, an absolutely defined policy is now being pursued, and this includes the exclusion of Protestant churches’ registration. The state does not have a clear policy, but the fact is that there are organizations that are seen as competitors to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The ROC sees the work that is being carried out by Protestant churches and has noted its displeasure. That is specifically why the lists of ‘sects’ has appeared and that the freedom of religion is now being suppressed. The Prosecutors are not playing the role that it should be playing on the basis of the Russian Federation Constitution, which notes the civic character of the Russian state and the necessity of ensuring human rights. Sebentsov asked what the reason is for the state searching out extremism among Protestants, if they have not murdered anyone and what is behind the reason to form the lists of ‘sects’ if they do not, in actuality, help in addressing the problem of extremism? Thus, it appears that the most convenient way for representatives of the authorities to proceed is to search for extremism in those places where it doesn’t even exist.

In connection with this, Konstantin Bendas, the first Deputy Chairman  of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals), added that the anti-sect stories that are aired on TV intentionally create an image of dangerous ‘new evangelistic’ churches in the minds of average people. The public liturgies of these communities are shown, accompanied by voice-overs by someone talking off-screen about Satanists. Mr. Bendas noted that such things are gradually absorbed by people’s minds and can drive society to a real social explosion.

Mikhail Odintsov, a professor and the Head of the Department on Religious and National Issues of the Office of Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsmen, noted that the number of complaints  by believers about treatment by state authorities increased seven-fold over the last few years. At present, there are about 3 thousand applications active at the Office of Russia’s Ombudsmen. In Odintsov’s opinion, the Russian state is moving away from its civic character little by little, there are no instruments for implementing  state policy in the field of religion, and there is no state body that could bear responsibility for state-religion relations. The Ombudsmen’s Office sent a total of 15 applications to regional Prosecutors’ Offices, but it did not receive even one answer, where the Prosecutor’s Office accepted the validity of the respective complaints. However, it is obvious that, in all of the cases filed with the Ombudsmen’s Office, there was not reasonable grounds to halt and break up public liturgy, to carry out searches and inspections of the respective churches, or to search for signs of extremism in their religion literature. As Mikhail Odintsov underlined, one’s religious point of view does not necessarily have to match that which is held by the state. For a believer, the world is understood in terms of sin and his views are directed to the transcendental world. Russian society, concluded Odintsov, lives in bitter deep conflict and cannot define where to go and what orienting path should be followed. He stated that Russia doesn’t have a state ideology in the positive meaning of the term.

The reaction of participating representatives of law enforcement agencies to the sharp criticism aimed in their direction was surprisingly well-disposed and diplomatic. Olga Klykova, a Senior Prosecutor from the Directorate for Supervising Federal Security Legislation Implementation, Inter-ethnic Relations and Combating Extremism at the Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation spoke at the event. She underlined that trying to pump up statistical data or ratings is not a policy of the Prosecutor General's Office and that issuing warnings and carrying out inspections of religious organizations is not their style. If some kind of situation happen to occur somewhere in Russia, she notes that the reason for this can only be due to overblown behavior on the part of local prosecutors.

The fight against extremism is, in fact, a component of the activity of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, noted Denis Kornikov, the Deputy Head of the Information, Law and Methodical Division of the Department on Counteracting Extremism, Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation. According to Kornikov, the main direction continues to be the prevention of extremist activity and it sends related materials to authorities in Russia’s regions. In connection with this, the Ministry aims to facilitate good relations with all world religions. According to Kornikov, the Ministry’s central apparatus also does not mandatorily require quantitative rates.

Sergey Ryakhovsky, the Head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) and a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, underlined that nobody is properly devoted to the issue of state-church relations in Russia. Ryakhovsky noted that the Public Сhamber of the Russian Federation plans to hold a public hearing on the issue of religion education and to initiate a hearing on the observance of religion freedom in the country.

The discussion between the participating lawyers, officers and scientists demonstrated that there is an acute problem with respect to the use of die-hard ‘sect fighters’ who are committed to Orthodox Christianity by state authorities at different levels. Within the legal community, such kind of ‘sect fighters’, who put together such lists of ‘sects’, also belong to our civil society and they bring their religious point of view to other citizens, not giving any breathing room to new religion movements. However, when their radical calls become a blueprint for action for prosecutors and police officers, then this becomes a reason for inciting inter-religious strife throughout the country.

Along with that it should be noted that the official position of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is not so radical as the statements that have been made by many of these ‘sect fighters’. That is why, for non-Orthodox Christian churches, there exists a good opportunity for engaging in dialog with the ROC. In the last few years, Protestant churches are taking firm social and political stance more and more. Unlike before, they are becoming less afraid to respond to any attacks on them, while Orthodox Christianity is becoming more enlightened and open.

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