Russia: Protestants Evicted From Rented Halls

Sunday, August 11, 2002

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

In mid-April four Protestant churches - the charismatic Cornerstone Church and Free Church, the Baptist Free Bible Church and an unregistered Pentecostal congregation - were all evicted from state premises which they had been renting for worship services in the capital of Tatarstan, Kazan.

Speaking to Keston on 26 May, Free Church elder Yuliya Borisenkova said that her congregation of approximately 150 and Cornerstone's congregation of approximately 500 had been renting two halls for services in a House of Culture [cultural centre] belonging to the Tatar Ministry for Internal Affairs, situated at 26 Karl Marx Street in central Kazan.

According to Borisenkova, there had been "some sort of complaint" about the church meetings from residents opposite, which, in her view, had been fabricated. Keston also wondered why the residents were particularly concerned by the meetings in the right half of 26 Karl Marx Street - Kazan's historical Lutheran church building. The left half is still occupied by the German Lutheran Centre of the Republic of Tatarstan, which continues to host weekly services by Lutherans, evangelicals and Messianic Jews.

After the Free Church's rental agreement had simply not been renewed six weeks ago, said Borisenkova, her congregation had managed to continue worship for a month at Nazareth Baptist Church. It is currently renting premises from one of the city's social organisations.

Interviewed by Keston on 27 May, lawyer to Cornerstone Church Anatoli Pagasi said that, of the other three churches affected, Free Bible Church had been renting a lycee for three years, while the unregistered Pentecostal congregation had been meeting at the Builders' House of Culture for five. It was against the latter church, he said, that a public complaint had been made.

Adhering to the conservative tradition of Soviet-era Pentecostal churches, the congregation's leaders had preached against the use of contraception, explained Pagasi. This had provoked the elderly mother of one parishioner and his wife to write a letter of complaint to Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs, he said, in which she asked officials to take measures to stop the "sectarians" from forcing her son and daughter-in- law to have children. When, in Pagasi's words, the Council had responded to two such complaints by saying that, according to the Russian constitution, it was "not her business what they did at night," the woman wrote to Tatar president Mintimer Shaimiyev to complain that the Council for Religious Affairs was not performing properly since it refused "to take measures against the sect."

Since the republic's presidential administration does not deal with such issues, said Pagasi, this letter was referred back to the Council for Religious Affairs. In Pagasi's view, by this stage the Council's members simply did not wish to deal with the issue and so passed the letter on to the Kazan municipal authorities. Pagasi surmised that at Kazan's Municipal Department for Relations with Social Organisations and the Media, Chairman Airat Zaripov "had reacted like Stalin - no person equals no problem" and had evoked a 1993 local decree ruling that state premises could be rented only with the permission of the local authorities - which the Pentecostals apparently did not have. While this was taking place, said Pagasi, checks were also made regarding similar rental agreements elsewhere.

In an interview with Keston on 28 May, chairman of Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs, Renat Nabiyev, denied that any such decree existed, maintaining that the eviction of the Pentecostals was due neither to a "limitation of the law" nor to "politics." The only reason he could suggest was that "it could be due to repair work on the building or something." Nabiyev also maintained that (contrary to Article 19, Part 2 of the republic's 1999 local law on religion), religious organisations do not have to obtain permission from the Council for Religious Affairs in order to rent premises in Tatarstan.

This last point was confirmed by Yuliya Borisenkova. However, she added, if the Council for Religious Affairs finds out [about a contract] there could be problems from them." The difficulties with rental appear to extend beyond Kazan municipality, she suggested, since a church which her congregation had founded in the eastern Tatar city of Naberezhnyye Cholny in 1993 was also evicted from its rented premises this month.