Thursday, 18 February 2010

RUSSIA: Setback for anti-missionary law

Ministry of Justice sacks people who conducted incompetent
anti-missionary policy against non-Orthodox
By Roman Lunkin (10.02.2010) / HRWF (17.02.2010) - Website: - Email: - The uproar evoked by a series of initiatives of the Ministry of Justice of RF in the religious sphere roiled society and roused up against the ministry many believers and defenders of freedom of conscience in Russia and abroad. Since Alexander Konovalov's assumption of the post of minister in 2008, radical sect-fighters have been appointed the chief experts on religion in the Ministry of Justice, intimidating investigations of religious associations have begun, and in October 2009 the Ministry of Justice proposed a draft law harshly restricting missionary activity in Russia. All of this has sharply undermined the confidence of believers in the authorities in general, and they have begun talking about the onset of new persecution.

Meanwhile, when the situation had already flared up to the limit, at the beginning of 2010 it became known that key figures responsible for the incompetent policy with respect to believers had been dismissed from the Ministry of Justice. These were a deputy minister, Aleksei Velichko, and the head of the Department on Noncommercial Organizations, which includes work with religious associations, Sergei Milushkin. The press service of the Ministry of Justice confirmed that this is indeed so; the odious figures do not work in the Ministry of Justice any longer.

Instead of Velichko, on 14 January 2010 by order of Russian President D. Medvedev, Alexander Fedorov was named first deputy minister of justice; previously he had served as deputy head of the Federal Service for Drug Control of Russia.

From the moment of appointment (June 2008) Velichko was authorized from the very beginning to oversee noncommercial organizations, since they were moved out of the purview of the Federal Registration Service to be immediately under the Ministry of Justice. Previously he worked as deputy director of the administration of state registration of rights to immoveable property of the Federal Registration Service. And since 2006 he was the assistant of Alexander Konovalov, who then was the presidential envoy for the Volga federal district. Aleksei Velichko naturally complemented his director, Alexander Konovalov, since Velichko is the author of books about the symphony of authorities in Byzantium and Russia. Naturally, almost immediately after the "Byzantine party" arrived at the ministry, it began to construct the ideal of symphony of church and secular authorities in the way that it understands it.

Aleksei Velichko began conducting a policy of pressure upon and intimidation of religious associations, especially non-Orthodox ones. In October 2008 the Ministry of Justice of RF first frightened believers when it published a list of 50 religious associations that were candidates for liquidation. Among them were Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, protestant, and alternative Orthodox associations. Many of the associations named by the Ministry of Justice had submitted accounts routinely and thus the clumsy step of the ministry was seen by all as some kind of signal.

It was Aleksei Velichko who was the patron of the sect-fighters led by Dvorkin, who with his support (and the support of the minister) were appointed in the spring of 2009 to the Council for Conducting State Religious Studies Expert Analysis of the Ministry of Justice. And Alexander Dvorkin, who is well known for his scurrilous articles and pronouncements against all non-Orthodox groups as "sectarians," became the chairman of this council. Against the sect-fighters and in defense of freedom of conscience there has been conducted an action labeled "No to Inquisitors!," which has collected 13,000 signatures of ordinary believers, church leaders, and secular scholars. Velichko himself, in an interview with "Rossiiskaia gazeta," had to justify Dvorkin by saying that "inquisitorial" policies have not been conducted in the ministry. However the sect-fighters have so far discredited the Ministry of Justice and the Russian authorities.  Exploiting their status as members of the council within the Ministry of Justice, they have made statements in the press and turned loose law enforcement agencies upon separate churches in the regions (especially active in this are Dvorkin and a member of Dvorkin's council, the sect-fighter Kuzmin from Saratov). Attempts to open a case against Kuzmin for incitement of interreligious strife have so far been unsuccessful. The protestant churches of Saratov have turned to another council created within the Ministry of Justice as an alternative to the infamous sect-fighting council, the Council for Conducting Expert Analysis of Religious Literature with Regard to the Subject of Extremism. The churches are demanding the conduct of an expert analysis of Kuzmin's publications to see whether they contain signs of incitement of interreligious hostility. Alarmed believers have filed suits against sect-fighters who are disciples of Dvorkin in many regions of Russia. Councils for Religious Studies Expert Analysis in the departments of justice in the provinces have begun to be headed either by overt sect-fighters or directly by Orthodox clergy (as in Rostov province). The impression has been created that the strained religious situation has been created under the patronage of the departments of justice.

Under the leadership of Velichko there also has continued in the Ministry of Justice work on the draft law for control of missionary activity. Dvorkin and another Orthodox activist and Islamic scholar Roman Silantiev, a member of Dvorkin's council, also participated in the development of the draft. The draft, which was posted on the web site of the Ministry of Justice on 12 October 2009, evoked a squall of letters and appeals from churches sent to President Medvedev with the demand not to permit the country to revert to the repressions of soviet times with respect to all those who evangelize. The draft law obliges each believer who evangelizes somewhere to have in his possession a document from a registered religious association, and members of a religious group who act without notification of the authorities are forbidden to evangelize. As a result, the draft was removed from the Ministry of Justice's site. The promotion of the draft law in round table sessions in the State Duma and at other events was undertaken by the head of the Department on Noncommercial Organizations, Milushkin, who insisted on its necessity. . . .

[The article contains numerous details of a scandal over property that involves Velichko, but has nothing to do with religion or the Ministry of Justice-ed.]

There is no doubt that one should not entertain any illusions that after the departure of the discredited figure who conducted the incompetent policy the Ministry of Justice will abandon the attempt to construct a "symphony of authorities"-the Russian Orthodox church and the state. Russian Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov, a deeply Orthodox person with theological education, is himself an advocate of the original neo-Byzantinism. However, the scandalous dismissals and the discrediting in the eyes of believers of the capacity of the government and departments of justice to protect the principles of freedom of conscience may force higher bureaucrats to be more conscientious and not be so arrogant in a country of flourishing religious diversity such as Russia. Statements, letters, protests, and actions against the inquisitors slowly but surely are having their effect. (tr. by PDS, posted 12 February 2010)

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