Russian Protestant churches are encountering a new wave of religious restrictions challenging their ownership of property, according to Forum 18 (Feb. 20), a news service reporting on religious freedom in post-communist lands.
While foreign religious groups have in the past registered the most complaints against the government for restricting religious freedom, today the complaints are also coming from native Russian Protestant congregations. The most recent case involves a legal challenge to the 1997 purchase by the Pentecostal Kingdom of God Church of a factory’s social club to use as a church. The Federal Property Agency is seeking the return of its “illegally occupied” property, even though the church has a valid ownership certificate and the deadline for legal challenges runs out after three years. Elsewhere local officials have refused to register Protestant churches’ ownership of land, arbitrarily reject approved construction plans, and refuse to redesignate property for religious use.
The cases suggest that “local authorities deliberately use bureaucratic and/or unofficial methods to challenge Protestant property ownership,” writes Geraldine Fagan. Various Protestant representatives have told Forum 18 in recent months that such problems are increasing. Last year, Protestant representatives also reported that it was becoming harder to secure rented premises for worship, the majority of which are state-owned. This trend likewise appears to be continuing. .In January, the Evangelical Christian Missionary Union, which embraces 54 registered churches throughout southern Russia, reported that the municipal authorities in the town of Tikhoretsk (Krasnodar region) had refused to renew a rental contract with its congregation there.
Speaking at a round table on religion and human rights at the Russian State Humanities University in early February, Russian human rights ombudsman Mikhail Odintsov included acquisition of worship premises among the increasing number of religious freedom violations about which he receives complaints from citizens. “Yesterday it was foreign organizations, but now it is ours, our Protestants,” he said. “The percentage of complaints resolved is miserable, and attempts to do so stop, start, and go on for years.”