A few remarks on the elevation of the status of the authority on matters of religion
Oleg KYSELYOV, master of religious studies, coordinator of the Youth Religious Studies Association
On 8 November 2006, Prime Minister of Ukraine V[iktor] Yanukovych signed a regulation on the establishment of the State Committee on Matters of Nationalities and Religions on the basis of reorganization of the State Department on Religious Matters and the State Committee on Matters of Nationalities and Migration.
For the State Department of Religious Matters, this means an elevation of status. For the State Committee on Matters of Nationalities and Migration, this means replacement of the Department of Migration and Refugees by the Department on Religious Matters. (They say the former will pass to the Ministry of Internal Affairs). The only question is how equivalent the replacement is, for the State Department on Religious Matters is quite an independent structure, even though it is subordinated to the Ministry of Justice. Is it correct to talk at all about a replacement? For the issue is not about an annexation of the State Committee on Religions to the State Committee on Migrations, but about reorganization of both bodies. Judging from the name of the newly-established committee, the unification is effected “on equal terms.” It is very likely that the structural subdivisions of the State Committee on Matters of Nationalities and Religions will fulfill their functions regardless of their status or of the head of the body. It is not known so far who will head the new committee. As a religious studies expert, I would like this position to be held by a person who has a good knowledge of the religious life in Ukraine.
The withdrawal of the State Department on Religious Matters from the Ministry of Justice has its logic, for the functions of the department overstepped the limits of the purely legal field. For instance, the world of law does not include religious studies expertise, conducting scholarly research on church-state relations, keeping records about religious organizations, religious buildings or preparation of forecasts in the religious field. Establishing a body dealing with problems of both religions and nationalities is not new to Ukraine. From 1994 to 1996, there existed a Ministry on Matters of Nationalities, Migration and Cults, and today, there are sectors, departments, and boards on matters of nationalities and religions attached to regional administrations (for instance, in Ivano-Frankivsk, Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, and other regions). How defensible is this combination? I believe that in dealing with the problem of ethno-denominational groups (Jews, Armenians, Karaites) the existence of one authority on matters of religion and nationalities may accelerate the process of finding the right solutions.
One should note that the idea of elevating the status of the State Department on Religions appeared a long time ago. At least, nearly a year ago, the resolution of the International Scholarly Practical Conference “Urgent Issues of Interdenominational Relations in Ukraine,” held by the State Department on Religious Matters on 15-16 December 2005, pondered the expediency of establishing a ministry on matters of ensuring freedom of worldview and religious expression or a council on matters of religions attached to the Cabinet of Ministers or any other body of that kind. The expediency is also mentioned in the resolution of the section “Religion and Church in the Ukrainian World” of the 4th World Forum of Ukrainians, which was held on 18-20 August 2006. Some experts, like Yurii Reshetnikov, expressed fears that a possible elevation of the status of the State Department of Religions may mean only an increase of state pressure on religious organizations. However, in their comments on the liquidation of the State Committee on Religious Matters, many experts noted the positive role of this body in the unified application of legislation in all regions of Ukraine and monitoring of religious processes, and some even talked about the need to extend the functions of the body. (See Religious Panorama. – 2005 - #2 (54) – pp. 42-45).
On the other hand, the registration of statutes and consulting assistance on matters of applying the law on freedom of worldview and religious expression is a legal matter.
The elevation of the status of the body on matters of religions can hardly be associated with state efforts to regulate the religious sphere. The interference of this body in the activity of religious organizations or imposing on, for instance, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations certain positions or evaluations are possible only with a direct instruction from “above,” which we saw in 2004. Let us hope that the present authorities will not yield to the temptation of using the elevated status of the body on matters of religions in political schemes. The appointment of the head of this body will be the first indicator of the authorities’ attitude to the State Committee on Matters of Nationalities and Religions. Will it be a professional in matters of religions or nationalities? Will the post of the head of the committee become a political post, a subject of bargaining during the distribution of portfolios between political forces in power?
Unfortunately, the resolution does not touch on the functions of the State Committee on Matters of Nationalities and Religions, and, therefore, it is not known to what extent the functions of this body will be extended in comparison with those of the State Department on Religious Matters. Will the functions of the former State Committee on Religious Matters be restored or will they be extended even more? For, after the presidential elections of 2004, experts and analysts talked about the need to grant control functions to the body on matters of religions.