Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Draft Plan to Return Property to Religions Creates More Problems than It Solves

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 24 – Draft legislation now being prepared by the Russian government that would return land and other forms of property to religious organizations, free Moscow from any responsibility to subsidize these gorups, and thus allow them to become more independent and active would create far more problems than it would solve.
On the one hand, the draft, which was outlined in today’s “Kommersant,” would be extraordinarily difficult to implement, not only because of the procedures for such transfers it creates but also because of the limitations and hence opportunities for political interference it allows (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1125186).
And on the other, if it were adopted and carried out, the proposed measure could make the Russian Orthodox Church the largest landowner in the country and Muslim groups the largest landowners in many of its parts, developments that would complicate Russia’s economic and political development and compromise the religious purposes of these organizations.
As “Kommersant” notes, formal proposals to return property to religious groups, which their backers say are a matter of simple justice and would support the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state, have been discussed in various government offices for several years.
Now, the paper says, the Ministry of Economic Development has come up with a draft law that would return all religious property “seized after the October revolution” and allow religious organizations irrevocable ownership and thus, after some time limits, to dispose of it, through sale or transfer, to others.
Such a move, the paper suggests, would not only eliminate any need for the government to subsidize religions, “something especially important in the period of financial crisis,” but it would, according to Stepan Medvedko, an advisor to the Duma’s religious affairs committee, represent “historical justice.”
But even if that is the case from certain perspectives, the amount of property and land that was held by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Muslim communities prior to 1917 was so enormous that its rapid return would have enormous and almost negative consequences for both the country and for the religious organizations.
Roman Cheptsov, development director for the Prime City Properties Consulting Company, said that the Orthodox Church would then be a land owner comparable to Gazprom or the Russian railways. And while “Kommersant” does not address it, vast swaths of land in the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus would pass to Muslim groups as restored waqf property.
At the very least, that would disorder existing economic and political arrangements. And certainly for that reason, the draft legislation contains restrictions that themselves are going to generate conflicts. First, the draft requires that religious groups “prove their right” to any property they claim, something that may be difficult if not impossible for them to do.
Second, it specifies that such transfers not occur until the current occupants of land have alternative places to live and work, something that will delay if not prevent the transfer of land especially in urban areas. And third, the proposed law requires that religious groups which receive such property not change its use or alienate it by sale of transfer for ten years.
Moreover, at least as discussed by “Kommersant,” the new measure will specify a large number of properties of political or historical importance that religious groups cannot even apply for, and it does not appear to define just who can make these claims: a denomination as a whole, its leadership or only individual registered religious communities.
But in addition to the struggles between the government and religious organizations that such a measure would exacerbate if it were to go into effect, the consequences for the religious organizations themselves in the event that they received all this property would be enormous and enormously negative.
As the experience of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church since Gorbachev’s time shows, the access of religious leaders to profit-making enterprises -- and they would certainly find a way to make money from any property – can subvert the fundamental values of these faiths and increase public cynicism about them.
And because all these dangers are likely to be highlighted as debate about this measure occurs in the coming weeks, it is unlikely that the measure will be passed in anything like its current form or implemented even in the way “Kommersant” and the experts with whom it discussed the matter suggest.

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