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Will Church Demolition Threats Be Carried Out In Russia ?

By Geraldine Fagan

2007-02-08 Uzbekistan (Froum 18) Local authorities in disparate parts of Russia are demanding the demolition of several Protestant churches and mosques, after displaying an apparently unprecedented level of interest in their fire safety and other technical aspects over recent months. In the only two similar cases from the first half of 2006, a Protestant bishop in Krasnodar has successfully defended his rights to hold worship meetings in a private house he has built, while a mosque threatened with destruction awaits a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg .

In the first of the more recent cases, Glorification Pentecostal Church must demolish its church building and vacate the plot of land beneath it by 1 April 2007 in accordance with a 7 December 2006 ruling by Khakassia Arbitration Court. Based in the central Siberian city of Abakan , the 1,000-strong congregation is best known as one of two religious organizations that made a successful appeal to Russia ‘s Constitutional Court against the 1997 Religion Law’s so-called 15-year rule. In the wake of that Law, local officials warned Glorification Church that it could neither work with war veterans and young offenders nor host international conferences and a Bible school because it had not functioned for 15 years.

On 23 November 1999, however, the Constitutional Court determined that this provision did not have retroactive force.

Speaking on 1 February, assistant pastor and administrator Aleksandr Prus said that Khakassia Arbitration Court is currently considering Glorification Church ‘s appeal against the city’s demolition order. Problems began in October 2005, he said, when fire safety, architectural, public procuracy and other officials began persistent check-ups of the church and its activities. Unable to comply quickly enough with subsequent fire safety demands, according to Prus, the church was repeatedly given fines of between 10,000 Roubles [2,360 Norwegian Kroner, 290 Euros, or 380 US Dollars] and 20,000 Roubles [4,720 Norwegian Kroner, 580 Euros, or 760 US Dollars]. Abakan City Court even ordered the closure of the church’s building for two periods of 30 and 40 days during 2006, he added, forcing the congregation to meet outside for services.

“Such demands can be routine, but we have had nothing like this before and feel that there is something more behind it,” Prus remarked. He was unsure about the cause of the authorities’ sudden sustained attention, however, “except that they also began with us after the new [Religion] Law was passed – we are a sort of testing ground.”

Asked about Glorification Church ‘s predicament on 6 February, Khakassia Republic ‘s senior religious affairs official maintained that its premises had been “badly built – they don’t meet fire or sanitation norms.” Nikolai Volkov also claimed to Forum 18 that the present situation has developed over many years. “It isn’t something that’s just come up – earlier we were trying to reach a compromise.” While insisting that the church’s current building would have to be demolished, he assured Forum 18 that the situation would not culminate “in anything outrageous” and suggested that the Pentecostals’ best option would be to construct a new house of worship.

“Believers should be able to pray to God,” Volkov remarked, “and no one is going to forbid that.”

According to Khakassia Arbitration Court materials, Glorification Church ‘s completed worship hall and adjoining administrative building – which is 83 per cent complete – qualify as “unauthorised construction”. Even though Aleksandr Prus submitted numerous documents supporting the legitimacy of the church’s construction and associated land acquisition, the Court claimed that these were insufficient to prove the legality of the complex and pointed to the absence of unspecified budgetary and expert assessments. It also disputed the validity of two key documents issued by Abakan ‘s municipal administration – a 1993 decree granting Glorification Church the right to use the land on a rental basis during construction of a house of worship and an associated 1994 contract. Prus, in turn, insisted that the Pentecostals had followed legislation in place during the early 1990s and obtained all relevant permission for construction.

In further court materials, Glorification Church questions the validity of numerous fire safety violations noted during a 4 October 2006 check-up of its unfinished administrative building. Church representatives point out to Abakan City Court that – even though the building is not actually in use – most of the violations have already been or are in the process of being rectified. They reject others, such as a failure to keep clear the storage area under the staircase, since “the only thing present under the stairs during the fire safety inspection was a jar of gherkins.”

Glorification Church similarly disputes the validity of several fire safety criticisms leveled at its adjacent private secondary school, the construction of which is not in doubt. “Even though no other school in the city has such a high level of fire safety,” Aleksandr Prus insisted, Khakassia’s Education Ministry ordered the withdrawal of the school’s teaching licence on 1 December 2006.

Some 2,800 km [1,740 miles] west in Kirovo-Chepetsk (Kirov Region) west of Mosocw, Grace Baptist Church has been encountering similar state intrusion.

“Fire officers wanted to close down our church building, but on 29 January a local court decided to fine us 10,000 Roubles [2,360 Norwegian Kroner, 290 Euros, or 380 US Dollars] for the moment and give us until 1 June to remove all fire safety violations,” Pastor Aleksandr Timofeyev said on 2 February. Since the church believes that most of these are groundless, however, it intends to lodge a court appeal.

While the congregation’s two-storey, 400 seat, church building was finished in 1997, Timofeyev said that the alleged fire safety violations noted during an early January 2007 check-up all relate to regulations on new construction introduced in 1997 – after the completion of the church – and 2003. Curiously, none of these was identified during a similar check-up in 2003, he pointed out, and even though fire officers noted a maximum of 20 violations on earlier occasions “and we resolved them all in the course of their work, this time there were 63 !” Pastor Timofeyev declined to comment by telephone on what might be behind the authorities’ sudden interest in Grace Baptist Church .

The telephone of Kirov regional administration’s specialist on religious freedom and the law, Vladimir Badin, went unanswered on 6 and 7 February.

In Kaluga , some 200 km [125 miles] south west of Moscow , the city authorities are attempting to confiscate the land and building of a Pentecostal church, even though both are the private property of the religious organization.
On 2 February, Pastor Albert Ratkin said that a 4 December 2006 decree issued by Mayor Maksim Akhimov orders Word of Life to give up its church building and land, in connection with the adjacent construction of Centrum Park Shopping Complex, but does not offer any form of compensation. “So far our situation hasn’t changed – the authorities aren’t forcing anything,” Ratkin remarked, adding that the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice will defend Word of Life in a forthcoming appeal against the Mayor’s decree. When the Pentecostals bought the 1,000 square metres [1,195 square yards] unfinished sports complex in 2002, the local authorities had no complaints, according to the pastor, but soon after foundations for the shopping centre were laid in early 2006 pressure began in the form of constant fire safety, tax and other inspections.

A 19 December 2006 report on the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice website points out that confiscation of private land in this way is possible under the Land Code only for exceptional state or municipal needs, “and the construction of a shopping and entertainment complex is not among them.”