Russia: Religious Robbery 5685-russia-religious-robberyRussia: Religious Robbery15 January 1999 Gleb Yakunin, who calls himself the Russian Luther, has been a constant thorn in the side of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although he was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp in 1980 for protesting Soviet control of the church, of which he was a priest, the Moscow Patriarchate defrocked him in 1993 for refusing to give up his seat in the Russian parliament. He has since joined the breakaway Kyiv Patriarchate, led by Patriarch Filaret. As head of the lobby group the Public Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Conscience, he rails against the Russian Orthodox Church's privileges--both spiritual (the church is the prime beneficiary of the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which restricts nontraditional faiths) and economic (the Orthodox Church enjoys wide tax exemptions and other perks). Yakunin argues in this letter to Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, reprinted in the Russian Kommersant-Daily on 5 November and excerpted below, that at a time of disastrous economic conditions, the Moscow Patriarchate's subsidies should be axed.

Surely, there are those who bear responsibility for what's going on in Russia. But, apart from searching for those responsible, it is necessary to get out of the permanent crisis in the country. For the sake of solving the most pressing economic problems, I consider it necessary to address authorities on ... proper taxation of entrepreneurial incomes acquired by religious organizations. ...

Freedom of religious activity should not be substituted with freedom for clergymen to make themselves richer. Believers' rights in no way depend on the numerous tax, customs, commercial, entrepreneurial, and other privileges, which the Russian Orthodox Church, represented by its centralized and governing bodies, enjoys.

The patriarchate has swallowed hundreds of billions of rubles of state money. ... The public has long known about tobacco, alcohol, petroleum, and rental business conducted under the protection of the church and about the mutually beneficial economic cooperation of the Orthodox and military hierarchies. All this imposes a heavy burden on both federal and local budgets. For example, Moscow mayor [Yurii Luzhkov], while declaring a lack of funds for construction of the subway, is continuing to reconstruct the Christ the Savior cathedral. ...

In the course of nomenclature-sponsored privatization in Russia, the patriarchate, not without official support, has acquired shares of the most profitable companies for a song. For example, it owns 40 percent of the Russian joint-stock company Inter-national Economic Cooperation, a holding active in the petroleum industry. While getting dividends from such a profitable business, it would be a sin to demand all possible allowances and privileges from the state.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that the transfer of sums to religious organizations remains hidden from both believers and the public. This lawlessness, which costs the state hundreds of million of dollars, must be stopped.

All the tax privileges granted to religious communities must be substantially revised and confined strictly to worship and to religious education. Strong control should be installed over cash flow and property of religious organizations.

According to federal law, the amount and composition of income of a nonprofit organization ... cannot be [secret]. Today, the patriarchate is lobbying the State Duma for several amendments, attempting to exclude religious organizations from the jurisdiction of that law--so very uncomfortable for it. ...

The Public Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Conscience appeals to the government of Russia to resolutely act against anti-constitutional privileges of religious communities [and] to lift all kinds of allowances for entrepreneurial activities from religious organizations, including those enjoyed by their enterprises.

It is necessary to return state money, already appropriated by religious structures, to Russians.

Translated by Victor Kalashnikov

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