RUSSIA: Pentecostal churches facing possible closure, destruction

Source:             www.forum18.org

Date:                  February 11, 2020


Kaluga's Word of Life Church and Oryol's Resurrection Church of God are
battling, in court, official attempts to destroy their places of worship.
"The City Administration received an order from the FSB to shut us down by
any means," Oryol Pastor Pavel Abashin insists. Bailiffs closed the
building of Nizhny Novgorod's Jesus Embassy Church. A court rejected a suit
to demolish Samara's Good News Church.

RUSSIA: Pentecostal churches facing possible closure, destruction
http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2543
By Victoria Arnold, Forum 18

Three Pentecostal congregations in different regions of Russia may be
barred from using their church buildings because of alleged violations of
construction, fire safety, or planning regulations. The churches insist
that these problems have either been completely eliminated, or were a
mistake by the authorities. A fourth won a reprieve in court in December
2019.

For periods ranging from 18 months to well over four years, the communities
– in Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, Oryol and Samara – have been caught up in
Russia's labyrinthine systems of rules regulating the acquisition,
alteration, construction and use of buildings.

The communities have had to undergo often multiple court processes in order
to assert their rights to property which they purchased entirely legally
and have used safely for years. These proceedings, which can include the
commissioning of expert analyses by technical specialists, take time and
cost money. As a result of the court proceedings, congregations can lose
access to their own places of worship for an indefinite period.

Bailiffs closed the building of Jesus Embassy Church in Nizhny Novgorod on
31 December 2019 due to alleged "fire safety" violations
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2541), but the changing
number of violations claimed, and the apparent hostility of the FSB
security service, raise doubts that officials will allow the Church to
reopen its building soon.

For more than a decade, the authorities in Kaluga have tried to confiscate
the church building and land from Word of Life Pentecostal Church's
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Numerous court cases have ensued over
whether the Church owns its land, whether it owns its building, whether
reconstruction of the building is safe, and whether it should be
demolished. "An undisguised leitmotif in the Prosecutor's statements is
that if it is impossible to bring [the building] into line with the 2000
technical certificate, then only one solution is possible – to demolish
the Church completely," Word of Life complains (see below).

Following an inspection of Oryol's Resurrection Church of God, in which the
FSB security service took part, Prosecutors successfully brought a case to
court to have the church building closed because the community had not
obtained official permission to bring it into commission. The authorities
then claimed that the church building encroaches on the neighbouring,
municipally-owned plot, which the Church disputes. "The City Administration
received an order from the FSB to shut us down by any means," Pastor Pavel
Abashin insists (see below).

In Samara, by contrast, an arbitration court ruled in favour of Good News
Pentecostal Church in December 2019, rejecting a request from the city's
Town Planning Department to have the Church demolished at its own expense.
The Department could still challenge the decision in court. Officials have
repeatedly rebuffed attempts to legalise ownership of the land where the
Church has worshipped for two decades (see below).

Complex, sometimes contradictory, and often inconsistently applied
legislation can lead religious communities to lose their places of worship
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2505). Officials in July
2019 barred a Baptist community in Novorossiysk from using its church "for
religious purposes", despite the fact that it has worshipped on the same
site for two decades. Local authorities are often unwilling to permit the
construction of purpose-built churches and mosques.

Alleged  "fire safety" violations and other alleged violations such as of
sanitation regulations have also been used to target Protestant theological
education institutions
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2465), as well as churches
and mosques (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=908). In one
such case, the Pentecostal Chuvash Bible Centre in 2007 lost its legal
personality status but after a long and expensive legal struggle won a
European Court of Human Rights case in Strasbourg (Application No.
33203/08) on 12 June 2014.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1982)

Kaluga: "Find ways of confiscating that land – any"

The authorities in Kaluga south-west of Moscow have long tried to
confiscate the church building and land from Word of Life Pentecostal
Church's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

In November 2006, the Mayor ordered Word of Life to give up its church
building and land, in connection with the adjacent construction of Centrum
Park Shopping Complex, but offered no compensation
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=908). When the Pentecostals
bought the 1,000 square metres [10,800 square feet] unfinished sports
complex in 2002, the local authorities had no complaints, Pastor Albert
Ratkin told Forum 18 in February 2007. Yet 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.

At the time, Moscow's Slavic Centre for Law and Justice pointed 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".
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=908)

Kaluga Regional Arbitration Court found the Mayor's Decree to be unlawful
on 6 June 2007, but on 4 July 2007, police seized documents and a computer
during a raid on the church. The City Prosecutor's Office then began
questioning church members about the Church's school, and opened criminal
investigations into the school four or five times between the raid and
October 2007. (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1040)

At a public hearing in the Architecture and Town Planning Department on 15
October 2008, which discussed a possible change of use for Word of Life's
land, a local representative of the Swedish firm behind the shopping centre
development spoke. He claimed that sales of alcohol from the shopping
centre might result in drunken violence against church members if Word of
Life remained on its land.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1223)

Apparently unaware that he was giving a public address, on 9 February 2009
at a local government meeting, Kaluga Region's then Governor Anatoly
Artamonov ordered that Word of Life's land be seized by "any" means.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1261) "Find ways of
confiscating that land – any" he said in a meeting that can be seen
online (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-JWFTZN9PQ) with English subtitles.

Kaluga: Application to have ownership recognised refused

Word of Life Church in Kaluga applied in June 2015 to have its ownership
recognised, church representative Yulia Ignatova told Forum 18 on 22
January 2020.

In May 2016, Word of Life applied to the city's Architecture and Town
Planning Department for official permission to begin using the buildings
and bring them into commission. This was refused as the buildings were said
to be to be "unauthorised structures" over which Word of Life allegedly had
no rights.

Retroactive legalisation of "unauthorised structures" is not uncommon. It
can happen if the applicant owns the land plot (as Word of Life has since
2002) and the structure conforms to town planning and construction
regulations. Lack of a reconstruction permit is not in itself grounds for
denying recognition of the right of ownership, according to a Supreme Court
ruling in 2014.

In 2018, Kaluga City Administration refused the Kaluga Diocese of the
Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) permission to bring a chapel
into use as it was claimed to be an "unauthorised structure" because a
building permit had not been obtained.

On 21 August 2018, however, Kaluga District Court ruled in favour of the
Diocese, stating: "A claim for recognition of ownership of an unauthorised
structure shall be satisfied when the court establishes that the only signs
of unauthorised construction are the lack of a building permit and/or the
absence of a act putting the facility into operation, which the person who
created the unauthorised construction took measures to obtain."

Despite this, Kaluga Regional Arbitration Court ruled against Word of Life
on 29 March 2019, arguing that the Church had not obtained proper
permissions for the reconstruction and that the building had serious
defects. Word of Life failed in its appeals against this at the 12th
Arbitration Appeal Court on 24 September 2019, and at Central District
Arbitration Appeal Court on 23 December 2019.

Kaluga: Prosecutor's case started in 2015, continued to 2019

Kaluga City Prosecutor's Office lodged a case with Kaluga District Court
against Word of Life in December 2015, after the latest Kaluga Regional
Arbitration Court case was lodged. This was suspended three times while
Arbitration Court proceedings were ongoing, and reopened for the final time
on 25 October 2019.

"In the [original, 2015] lawsuit, the Prosecutor's Office refers to an
allegedly conducted inspection [of the building]," Ignatova of Word of Life
told Forum 18. "However, verbally in Kaluga District Court, the Prosecutor
said that there had been no inspection, but that a representative of the
Kaluga City Administration had simply gone to the leadership of the
Prosecutor's Office and handed over the documents that we had sent them.
Our request to submit inspection materials was ignored."

The Prosecutor's Office argued that that Word of Life's building should be
brought back into line with its technical certificate dating from February
2000 (before Word of Life reconstructed it). Prosecutors also argued that
Word of Life should stop using its building in the meantime.

Word of Life argued that the 2000 technical certificate was invalid and had
been superseded by a 2016 certificate, which testified to the
reconstruction work done since the property was purchased in 2000 (such
documents describe the dimensions, materials, and physical features of a
building, including any changes and repairs).

"An undisguised leitmotif in the Prosecutor's statements is that if it is
impossible to bring [the building] into line with the 2000 technical
certificate, then only one solution is possible – to demolish the Church
completely," Word of Life said on 6 December 2019.

Word of Life also argued that it should be allowed to continue using its
building on the basis of amendments to the Civil Code from 30 March 2016
and 4 August 2018. These give religious organisations the right to use such
"unauthorised structures" indefinitely if they conform to legal
requirements, and up to 2030 if they do not.

Despite this, on 4 December 2019, Kaluga District Court dismissed Word of
Life's arguments as an allegedly "incorrect interpretation of the law".

Prosecutors claimed that the construction company KalugaTIZISProekt,
engaged by the city administration to inspect Word of Life's building in
August 2018, had found four defects in the building, including: one problem
with the load-bearing capacity of a structural element; and a lack of fire
retardant coatings in the boiler room and elsewhere.

Word of Life insists that these problems have been resolved, and presented
five expert reports to show that the building is safe. These were "ignored"
by the court, Ignatova of Word of Life told Forum 18.

Kaluga: Inspections confirm "no defects, damage or deformities"

Two of these five expert reports, both seen by Forum 18, were produced by
state institutions, Forum 18 notes. Moscow's Russian Federal Centre for
Judicial Analysis at the Justice Ministry carried out its analysis between
March and September 2017 by order of Kaluga Regional Arbitration Court. The
Federal Centre is the "highest-level expert institution", Ignatova of Word
of Life pointed out.

Word of Life itself commissioned the Justice Ministry's Kursk Judicial
Analysis Laboratory in September-October 2018.

Both state inspections, which included site visits and examination of
technical and legal documents, concluded that the building conformed to all
construction, town-planning, and other rules and norms, and did not pose a
threat to the life and health of citizens.

Forum 18 wrote on 29 January 2020 to Kaluga City Administration and its
Department for Architecture and Town Planning, asking why they thought Word
of Life Church ought to be closed if state experts had found it to be safe.
The administration sent a form response the same day saying that Forum 18's
request would be dealt with within 30 calendar days. Forum 18 received no
answer to these questions by the end of the working day in Kaluga on 11
February.

Word of Life also commissioned a private expert, construction engineer
Nikolay Pashinin, to ascertain whether it was possible to return the
building to its 2000 condition, whether this would incur significant costs,
and whether significant costs would arise from eliminating the problems
identified by the KalugaTIZISProekt inspection.

Pashinin found that since Word of Life's building was "in working condition
and suitable for use for its intended purpose", bringing it back into line
with the 2000 technical certificate would be possible only at significant
expense. He also concluded that all the problems found by KalugaTIZISProekt
had been resolved, that the work on each had been documented, and that
there were "no defects, damage or deformities" to the building.

Kaluga: District Court rules against Word of Life

Despite these expert reports, Kaluga District Court decided on 4 December
2019 that no proof existed that all violations identified by
KalugaTIZISProekt had been eliminated. The Court also claimed that Word of
Life's arguments "came down to only disagreement with this expert opinion
– which the Arbitration Court has already accepted as 'relevant, valid,
and reliable evidence'".

The District Court ruled – as Prosecutors had argued - that Word of
Life's building should be brought back into line with the February 2000
technical certificate, and that Word of Life should stop using it in the
meantime.

Word of Life lodged an appeal at Kaluga Regional Court on 14 January 2020,
and the first hearing has been scheduled for 2 March. At present the Church
continues to be able to use its building.

"The question remains - who benefits from destroying the temple, and why
are believers being deprived of a place where they can practise their faith
on the basis of the Constitution of the Russian Federation?" Word of Life
commented.

Samara: Reprieve?

The Civil Code amendments of 30 March 2016 and 4 August 2018 – which give
religious organisations the right to use "unauthorised structures"
indefinitely if they conform to legal requirements, and up to 2030 if they
do not – have resulted in a favourable court decision for Good News
Pentecostal Church in Samara, a city in south-eastern European Russia on
the Volga river.

Officials repeatedly rebuffed attempts to legalise ownership of the land
where Good News Church has worshipped for two decades. Officials want to
demolish the church, at the congregation's expense.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2508)

On 5 December 2019, however, Samara Regional Arbitration Court refused a
request from the city's Town Planning Department to have the Church
demolished at its own expense. The Court found that the Church was an
"unauthorised structure", but ruled out demolition because provision for it
in the Land Code does not apply to structures of religious significance.

The court decided the Church is a structure of religious significance using
the 2010 Law on Restitution of Religious Property
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1961), which the Town
Planning Department did not dispute. In such cases, the Judge pointed out,
religious communities may continue to use "unauthorised structures"
indefinitely if they conform to legal requirements, and up to 2030 if they
do not.

The Town Planning Department lodged an appeal against the decision on 13
January 2020. The 11th Arbitration Appeal Court rejected this on 23 January
for technical reasons, but the Department now has until 21 February to
resubmit its challenge.

Oryol: Church still threatened with demolition

In Oryol, a city south-west of Moscow, the Resurrection Church of God
received its land in good faith in 2009 from the Oryol Regional Department
of Property, Industrial, and Information Policy. In December 2017, the
Church was, according to court documents seen by Forum 18, inspected by the
FSB security service, construction inspectors, and fire inspectors from the
Emergencies Ministry. The Construction Inspectorate later decided not to
take the church to court.

Prosecutors nevertheless lodged a suit at Oryol's Railway District Court to
have the church building closed because the community had not obtained
official permission to bring it into commission, and had therefore not
"passed, in the prescribed manner, a check by state bodies for compliance
with technical regulations, construction and sanitary norms and rules, or
fire safety requirements".

Railway District Court ruled on 28 May 2018 that the Church's use of the
building was unlawful and should be stopped until it had obtained official
permission to bring it into use.

The administration had earlier refused this permission because of a dispute
over the land plot's boundaries (see below), Pastor Pavel Abashin told
afmedia.ru on 14 December 2018. The Church appealed unsuccessfully on 25
July 2018, and its cassational appeal was rejected without consideration on
8 November 2018.

As of 11 February 2020, worship continues in the building. It appears that
Arbitration Court proceedings on recognising the ownership of the building
and clarifying the plot's boundaries, which have continued since 2018, have
delayed the implementation of the District Court decision.

Oryol: Church's struggle to have its ownership recognised

"The City Administration received an order from the FSB to shut us down by
any means," Pastor Pavel Abashin wrote on his VKontakte page on 3 December
2019. "They were looking for something to complain about, [and] since the
building was new and all requirements of the fire service [and] the
Ministry of Emergencies had been met, it was necessary to find some reason
why it would stick, and of course they found one - or rather artificially
created it."

Alexander Verkhovsky of Moscow's SOVA Center for Information and Analysis
commented to Forum 18 on 15 January 2020 that the initiator of such
proceedings may not be the FSB security service. "It could be any official
who wants to create difficulties for one organisation or another. And in
the main, whether it is possible to 'eliminate violations' .. depends
precisely on how much they want this."
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2541)

Pastor Abashin complained that "they came without coordinating it with us,
carried out a survey of the municipal land adjacent to our site, and made
it so that we allegedly encroached on the municipal land .. and filed a
lawsuit against us to have our boiler house demolished. Because of this,
the commissioning of the building was rejected and we were closed by the
court."

Oryol City Administration claims that parts of the Church's building (of
7.88 and 0.5 square metres respectively) cross one plot's south-eastern
boundary, and therefore "unlawfully occupy" municipal land. The Church
argues that the land boundaries were incorrectly recorded in the cadastral
register, and had a new plan drawn up by a cadastral engineer in March
2019.

In May 2018, the Church lodged a case with Oryol Regional Arbitration Court
to have its right of ownership of the building recognised. The City
Administration launched a counterclaim to force the church to "vacate the
unlawfully occupied land plot", which was attached to the ownership case in
July 2018 to be considered simultaneously.

On 16 December 2019, the administration stated that it wanted the Church to
demolish those parts of its building which allegedly encroach on municipal
land.

On 14 January 2020, Oryol Regional Arbitration Court agreed to the Church's
request to suspend proceedings in its case to have its right of ownership
recognised. This now awaits the final outcome of the land boundary case.

On 17 February, hearings will begin of the Resurrection Church's suit
against the city administration (lodged on 20 December 2019) to determine
the correct boundaries of the plots of land on which its building stands.
This is the church's second attempt to correct the alleged boundary error
through the arbitration courts – its previous suit proved unsuccessful on
28 February 2019, with unsuccessful appeals on 25 June and 15 November
2019.

"The area of our land plot has not changed by one centimetre," Pastor
Abashin insisted. "We made several independent examinations, they all prove
that the city has encroached on our land, but the courts basically do not
want to take into account the conclusions of independent experts."

On 30 January 2020, Forum 18 wrote to Oryol City Administration and its
Department for Town Planning, Architecture, and Land Management, asking why
they did not agree that a simple cadastral error had been made, and why it
wanted the church to vacate the allegedly "unlawfully occupied" land.

On 3 February, the Town Planning Department replied to Forum 18, claiming
that the questions "do not fall within the competence of the department".

Responding on 6 February, Igor Kralichev, deputy head of the city
administration, pointed out that Oryol Regional Arbitration Court had found
no cadastral error in the church's first attempt to have this clarified. He
added that "violation of the boundaries of the land plot belonging to the
church, and unlawful occupation of part of a municipal land plot, served as
grounds for an application to court to request the demolition of part of
the church building". (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10)

For more background see Forum 18's survey of the general state of freedom
of religion and belief in Russia
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2246), as well as Forum 18's
survey of the dramatic decline in this freedom related to Russia's
Extremism Law (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2215).

A personal commentary by Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center
for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, about the systemic
problems of Russian anti-extremism legislation
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1468)

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1351)

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