Saturday, May 29, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Draft Russian Legislation on Religious Property Creates More Possibilities for Abuse and Inter-Religious Strife

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 29 – A draft bill prepared by the Russian government that would allow federation subjects and municipalities to return to religious groups properties confiscated by the Soviet authorities not only opens the way for more abuse but also is likely to exacerbate friction among Russia’s religious groups.
On the one hand, the draft legislation, which has been under preparation since 2006, means that many decisions which Moscow now makes will be taken by regional and local officials who may in some cases be subject to more unreported and uncontested pressure from one group or another.
And on the other, the bill, which is slated to go to the Duma before June 10, “Rossiiskaya gazeta” said yesterday, anticipates conflicts among religious groups over particular properties and calls for those disputes to be resolved either by the Federal Agency for the Administration of State Property (Rosimushchestvo) or the courts (
In that paper, Tatyana Zykova writes about what she calls “The Cult of Property” and argues that “the procedure of transferring to religious organizations property” seized in the past “will soon be unified.” But in fact the procedures in the draft bill suggest that there is likely to be more variation than now.
The measure, if passed, will certainly allow religious groups to seek the return of more properties than under current law. That is because many such properties seized by the Soviets are held not by the federal government but rather by the governments of republics, krays or oblasts or by municipal bodies.
But it will also mean that these institutions and not Moscow will make the decisions. Not only will their decisions likely be subject to less media scrutiny than the ones taken at the center, but these bodies may very well be pressured by locally influential religious figures or by local religious majorities.
According to Rosimushchestvo, Zykova says, “religious organizations are displaying ever greater activity in [seeking] the return of their property.” In 2009, there were 72 such requests, the property agency said, but during the first four months of this year, there were almost as many – 68.
Moreover, officials at that agency say, religions other than the Orthodox Church are now making more demands. At present, the Lutheran church is seeking the return of a church building in Samara, and the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) is about to receive make a mosque in Kazan. In addition, Jewish groups are reclaiming “several synagogues.”
Appeals by all groups are likely to increase dramatically if the draft bill becomes law. That will create problems for regional and local governments who will have to find housing for organizations and individuals in these confiscated properties, something that many hard-pressed local governments may find even harder to do than Moscow has.
According to Zykova, the new bill has been a “difficult” one, having been debated within the government since 2006. But she says that it has been approved by the government Commission on Questions of Religious Groups that is headed by Vice Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov.
Moreover, she reports, the draft has been approved “not only by the Russian Orthodox Church but by all confessions” – although here she almost certainly means only the four “traditional” religions that the Russian government currently views as indigenous (Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism).
And “Rossiiskaya gazeta” journalist notes that the measure anticipates conflicts among them. If various religious organizations seek to claim “one and the same object, then the draft proposes discussion of the problem in Rosimushchestvo. If agreement isn’t achieved there, then the issue should go to an inter-agency commission and in extreme cases to the courts.”
The current situation in Kaliningrad suggests that such competitions are likely, at least in part because officials seem inclined to tilt toward Russian Orthodoxy in their decisions about restitution rather than to recognize the rights of other religions to recover property that had belonged to them.
Yesterday, reported that Moscow had transferred two more buildings that had been Lutheran churches prior to Soviet confiscation to the Russian Orthodox Church, a trend that seems likely to continue and to spark inter-religious and in some cases inter-ethnic hostility (

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