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Privatization, the Orthodox Way

By Dmitry Babich Russia Profile 03/02/2009

The Russian Orthodox Church Promised not to Take More than It Can Carry

The simultaneous publication of several stories on the draft law authorizing the return to the Russian Orthodox Church of the buildings, land and other property which now formally belong to the state but are used by the church for free stirred heated social debate. The Kommersant daily wrote that the law made the church “one of the richest owners in the country.” The newspaper attributed the authorship of the draft law titled “On the Ownership by Religious Organizations of the Property Used for Religious Purposes” to the Ministry for Economic Development.

“We did prepare this draft, but it was a long time ago,” Elvira Nabiullina, the minister of economic development, commented during her visit to RIA Novosti on Tuesday, in which she accompanied the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. “In fact, property is already being transferred to the Orthodox Church; we are just trying to put this process in a legal framework.”

Metropolitan Kliment (Kapalin), the Chancellor of Moscow Patriarchate and the bishop of Kaluga and Borovsk, defended the bill, saying that it was necessary for the church’s independence and for its normal functioning. “The regular privatization laws simply won’t work in this situation,” Kliment said in response to a reporter’s question in the Public Chamber of Russian Federation. “According to the law, you need to organize a tender if you want to transfer state property to private owners. But what kind of tender can there be for church buildings or cathedrals? So, a special law needs to be adopted which would make it possible for the believers to become owners of something that is truly theirs, and that they often create with their own hands.”

Kliment stressed that the church was supposed to receive the property not as an institution, but primarily as a community of believers. He confirmed that church buildings began passing into the church’s ownership in 2006, but noted that most of the church buildings were still owned by the state, and that the church did not plan to take hold of all the assets it can lay claim to. “For example, the cathedral of Christ the Savior [the main venue for the church congresses and the biggest Orthodox cathedral in Russia] is owned by the office of the Moscow mayor,” Kliment said. “In the cases when the church buildings are important architectural monuments, we welcome cooperation from the state and the museums. In fact, we ask the state to provide specialists in restoration and construction who would help us maintain the buildings in good condition. When we can’t do it on our own, we won’t claim ownership. These claims are not automatic.”

Kliment was referring to criticism on behalf of the press and art experts who claim that the church is often incapable of preserving icons, buildings, and other important objects in a proper way. The Muslim community, the second largest (after the Orthodox Christians) religious group in Russia, is also facing problems in maintaining the property which it may claim according to the new law. “In Orenburg [a city in southeastern Russia] there is a big building which used to house a Muslim religious school and several other Muslim bodies,” a representative of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the European part of Russia who wished to remain anonymous explained. “Now it is occupied by an agricultural academy. The local authorities suggested that the Muslim community take hold of it. But they refused because they simply did not need such a huge building and had no resources to pay for utilities. Instead, it was agreed that the Muslim clergy would use several rooms inside the building for free.”

Vladimir Gusev, a deputy from the Ivanovo region in the Federation Council of Russia, views the new draft law negatively. “This is just one more form of redistribution of property in Russia and this is a bad development,” he said. “The church may say many nice things now, but some of its leaders do not even conceal the fact that some of this real estate may be used for commercial purposes. Even the clergy is susceptible to temptation.”

However, the generally positive attitude toward the new draft law in the press and in other influential circles, such as the Public Chamber, speaks for its high chances of clearing both the Duma and the Federation Council. “If this is true, we shall be able to turn the page of our history, when the church owned almost nothing in Russia,” said Valery Rastorguyev, a professor at the Moscow State University and a member of the working group on preservation projects in the Public Chamber. “The church has proven in the last few years that it can be a much more effective owner than, say, the oligarchs.”

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