Russia to Return Church Property
Seized in 1917

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill

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The Russian Orthodox Church looks set to become a major owner of property in Russia after a long-delayed law on returning religious property seized by the Bolsheviks got a push from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Kommersant newspaper reported on Thursday that the government had vowed to promptly turn the bill - being drafted by the economics ministry since 2007 - into law. A government commission on religious organizations held a session on Wednesday.

"We discussed practically all articles of the bill," secretary Andrei Sebentsov told the business daily. "We agreed to remove all the weak points in it by February."

Observers said the bill would chiefly benefit the country's dominant religion, making the Russian Orthodox Church a major real estate owner.

At a meeting with Russian Patriarch Kirill earlier this month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for progress in the long-stalled process to legitimize the property used by religious groups, including buildings and land plots.

In almost two decades since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has through government decrees regained ownership of just 100 or so of 16,000 churches and cathedrals, the paper said. The law would also affect more than 4,000 mosques and some 70 synagogues.

Putin also said the culture ministry had drafted a bill to allocate state funds to help parishes and monasteries maintain or rebuild derelict churches, the paper said.

The draft law also envisions the return of church archives and relics, which is expected to end disputes with museums that are often reluctant to part with their collections.

"The law would affect the rights of museums, which could lose many of its exhibits if it is passed," Roman Lunkin, head of the Religion and Law Institute think tank, told Kommersant.

The Orthodox Church, however, will not get back churches now on the UNESCO world heritage list, including St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square and the churches within the Kremlin walls, the paper said.

Religious organizations, Christian churches, mosques and synagogues, currently have no ownership rights on their property, but rent it free of charge. The economics ministry has sought to change the ownership structure of property used by religious groups in a bid to cut budget spending.

Real estate analysts have said that given the value of land in Moscow and other cities, the law could put the Church in the league of the gas and railroad monopolies, Gazprom and Russian Railways.

The Communist Party warned that the ensuing commercial activity involving the property could harm the mission of religious organizations and Russia could have "gilded churches and growing poverty and immorality."

The Orthodox Church and other religions dismissed the fears saying religious organizations will become legitimate owners of their property and will be independent of the state, and will spend more on charity.

RIA Novosti
24 January, 2010