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Draft Law 10221: the end to religious freedom?

Recently passed amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations threaten to destabilize the already fragile balance between denominations and seriously complicate life for believers

  Maxim Vasin from the Institute for Religious Freedom writes that in today’s Ukraine when the parliamentary majority can within a matter of 50 seconds vote to restrict citizens’ constitutional rights without any discussion and ignore public opinion, the public urgently needs to act in defence of fundamental human rights, including religious freedom.

This was the situation on 16 October when parliament adopted in its second reading a bill with serious amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations tabled by the President’s Representative in the Verkhovna Rada, Yury Miroshnychenko. At a meeting with the President the very next day heads of Churches and religious organizations expressed their unequivocal position that the law needs to be vetoed. They said that it had been adopted with flagrant infringements of parliamentary regulations and in breach of promises given by representatives of the government.

The main danger lies in the fact that the amendments can be interpreted in different ways. Haste and lack of thought over these amendments, if they come into force, will mean that officials will be enormously tempted to abuse the Law in favour of one or another denomination or to stifle free thinking or freedom of religion altogether. Corruption is also likely.

Specific issues

The draft law makes the procedure for registering religious organizations less clear-cut and more complicated. This is through the introduction of two uncoordinated procedures for gaining legal entity status. Nor is it clear which order this registration should take place.

The draft law not only rejects the principle proposed by the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations for a single instance registration, but introduces two which are totally unrelated to each other.

The author is categorical in his criticism, saying that laws are supposed to regulate social relations, not create chaos.

The list of regulatory bodies is extended to include the Prosecutor’s Office, the central body on religious matters (the Ministry of Culture); other ministries and local authorities. This is an over step backwards towards Soviet total control over the activities of believers and religious organizations. The situation is even more worrying since the amendments do not clearly delineate competence of specific bodies and the permissible ways of exercising their regulatory powers. This creates the grounds for arbitrary behaviour from officialdom.

The problem is that those authorities which are authorized to provide administrative services to religious organizations are given regulatory powers despite the fact that they themselves often violate legislation in this sphere.

The author notes that the new Law on Civic Organizations which takes effect in 2013 totally removes state control over NGO’s adherence to their founding charter. In the religious sphere, legislators have gone in the opposite direction.

Another issue is that the draft law retains a permission-based system for holding peaceful gatherings which is in direct breach of Article 39 of the Constitution. There is also a norm saying that the Ministry of Culture agrees the religious activities of foreign nationals. This adds discrepancies to the normative regulation of the work in Ukraine of foreign priests, teachers and students of religious establishments, volunteers, etc.

While there was clearly need for improvement to the current law, over the last 20 years the situation has made it possible to maintain balance. Any changes need to be made with care and with full discussion with all parties involved.

The deadline for the President’s decision on whether or not to veto the law is due. The author notes that some government structures are saying that the law can be reworked after it’s signed. He believes this to be fraught with danger and yet more promises, and can only still further topple the already fragile peace between different faiths and denominations in Ukraine. The President’s failure to use his power of veto will demonstrate his indifferent to the views of religious organizations during their dialogue. This will have devastating consequences for the progress made over the last decade.

It is therefore vital that the President vetoes this bill.

Abridged from Maxim Vasin’s text here

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