OUTSIDE THE LAW. PROSECUTOR OF VORONEZH PROVINCE FORCES BELIEVERS TO BE REGISTERED
by Roman Lunkin
On 1 December 2016, the prosecutor’s office of Voronezh province issued blatant statements about the exposure of a religious group of Baptists that is operating in the Pavlovsk district. Reports were circulated in the press, citing the prosecutor’s office, which created the impression that the Baptists were engaged in illegal activity and they violated the law. The district prosecutor’s office demanded that the illegal activity of the centralized religious organization “Association of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Voronezh province” cease and also that groups of believers eliminate violations.
The senior presbyter of the Association of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (EKhB) was issued a presentment that the group be registered. A senior assistant prosecutor of Voronezh province, Mikhail Usov, said in an interview with the news agency Regnum: “The prosecutor’s office began an investigation on the basis of complaints from local residents, who reported about vigorous activity of Baptists on the territory of the district. In particular, residents complained about Baptists’ attempts to impose their beliefs on them. At the same time, according to information from the directorate of the Ministry of Justice for Voronezh province, no religious groups are registered on the territory of the district. Thus, the Baptists’ activity in Pavlovsk district is illegal.”
The senior EKhB presbyter for Voronezh province, Petr Mireichik, stressed in an interview with the portal Religiia i Pravo that in the presentment from the prosecutor’s office that he received there was no reference to provisions of law that require a religious group or any gathering of citizens who pray to register. The prosecutor’s office decided that once there actually is some gathering of citizens, then it should be within the register of groups or organizations of the regional directorate of the Russian Ministry of Justice. The presentment says that the Association of EKhB Churches is accused of “failure to take steps to notify the agency that registers religious associations.” And in the opinion of the prosecutor’s office that means that the Baptists are violating the law and there is a lack of proper control over the religious associations of the centralized organization.
In reality, the prosecutor’s office of Pavlovsk district decided to take measures against the Baptists on the basis of a report by a citizen, E.V. Sidenko, and not on the basis of “citizens’ complaints” in general. Presbyter Petr Mireichik said the gathering of believers has existed in the Pavlovsk district more than ten years now and in 2003 the congregation formally joined the EKhB association for the province. That is, the congregation has evidence of affiliation with the district association of the Russian Union of Baptists. And that means that the gathering of believers has already operated within the bounds of the law; the activity of the group was already part of the activity of the EKhB association.
As a result of the new legislation opposing evangelistic activity, the Yarovaya law, this is insufficient. Petr Mireichik said the personnel of the prosecutor’s office have been very pleasant, but they insisted that the group give notification of its existence, which the association will do: “At the present time we are living according to the pattern—they push and then we will take measures; they do not put pressure on and we will leave everything as it is. We absolutely cannot register all groups right away or give notification. This is both time and money. We have groups that have been functioning about 100 years and they exist peacefully. We will move in this direction gradually if there is pressure. We have not been especially liked, but we have not suffered great restrictions before.”
We recall that the Voronezh Association of EKhB Churches is a member of the Inter-confessional Council of the province, along with Orthodox, Jews, Muslims and others and they participate in most of the significant events in the province, and it maintains relations with the authorities and other confessions. Against this background it is especially clear that the acton of representatives of the prosecutor’s office with regard to the believers is especially wrong and impolitic.
The Baptists made the decision to submit notification about the group in Pavlovsk to the agencies of justice, despite that the prosecutor’s office’s demand was illegal.
The point is that the Russian federal law “On freedom of conscience and religious associations” does not contain a requirement to register any gathering of citizens or to give notification of its existence. Article 3 of the law articulates the provisions of the Russian constitution: “In the Russian federation are guaranteed freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession, including the right to confess individually or jointly with others any religion or to confess none, to conduct worship services, other religious rituals and ceremonies, to conduct the teaching of religion and religious training, to choose freely and to change, hold, and disseminate religious and other convictions and to act in accordance with them, including the creation of religious associations.”
Article 7, which is devoted to groups, says that “the leader (representative) of a religious group or governing organ (center) of a centralized religious organization, in the event that a religious group is a member of that structure, gives notice in written form of the start of the activity of a religious group, and the official makes a decision about the registration of the religious organization in the place of the conduct of the religious group. The notification about the start of the activity of the religious group indicates the fundamentals of the religious confession, the locations of conducting worship services, other religious rituals, and ceremonies, administration (representation), citizens who are members of the religious groups, including their family name, personal name, patronymic, and residential address. Notification of the start of the activity of a religious group is structured according to the form established by the agency that is authorized to make a decision about the state registration of a religious organization.”
However, as a rule, notification of existence is done by those groups that wish to become in future organizations with the rights of legal entity (juridical person).
There is no penalty for a gathering of believers “jointly confessing faith,” and there cannot be. A prohibition of such a meeting violates the constitution of Russia.
As Portal-Credo.ru notes, hitherto the Voronezh regional subdivision of the Ministry of Justice had not published information about the number of subordinate agencies dealing with the activity of religious groups. However, it is known that in recent years the local diocese of the RPTsMP stopped registering a number of its own subdivisions as legal entities, including the new entities as, primarily, rural parishes that do not have their own liturgical premises.
The Yarovaya antievangelism law, that took effect in July 2016, launched a devastating chain reaction, frightening law-abiding believers. (tr. by PDS, posted 2 December 2016)