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Broken Spirits: Although the Law "On Returning Church Property" Has Been Adopted, Many Religious Organizations Have So Far Been Unable to Reclaim Their Possessions

The red-brick church on Novoslobodskaya Ulitsa in the center of Moscow may seem no different from any of the 700 or so other Orthodox churches in the city, but the All-Merciful Savior Church is in fact owned by a design technology institute and rented out to a law firm. Some 20 years ago, that was considered to be a fairly good fortune for a religious building. Yet today it is unusual to see one of the capital's active Orthodox Christian communities failing year after year to take over buildings they consider to be theirs.

Despite the demise of Soviet-era atheist policies, which led to the return of thousands of churches and monasteries, the process was not regulated by law until November of 2010. Orthodox activists believe that religious buildings should be handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church as soon as possible, but current tenants usually claim various noble reasons to retain the status quo.

The law on the return of church estate signed by Russia's President Dimity Medvedev in 2010 may legally obligate government agencies to return all religious buildings to the Russian Orthodox Church within six years, but so far the government has seemed reluctant to do so. While the Russian Orthodox Church doesn't have official statistics on disputed property, Kirill Frolov, a vocal campaigner on orthodox religious issues, claimed in a recent report that at least 23 Moscow churches are struggling to get back buildings that are currently occupied by police stations, clinics, museums and institutes.

The first question that springs to mind when approaching the All-Merciful Savior Church is why a sign reading "Attorneys-at-Law" hangs in front of the area where religious services are conducted, followed by why the interior of the church looks like that of an administrative building. A nearby ramshackle red-brick construction is actually home to the parish, which brings together between 150 and 300 worshippers depending on the day of the year.

Closed in 1927, and occupied by various Soviet agencies throughout the 20th century, it was reregistered as a religious organization in 1993, and services resumed in 2000. But they continue to be held in the ramshackle building ­ a former convent and the first Female Theological Institute, according to rector Archpriest Alexander Ilyashenko. "The church doesn't have any benefactors except ordinary people who make donations for construction materials," said Vladimir Prostov, the parish warden. "If you have fallen plaster on the floor of your flat and the wallpaper is coming off, the first thing that comes to your mind is to change the situation," said one parishioner, Valeria Posashko. "People work here on a voluntary basis ­ the men do repairs while the women clean. But a lack of volunteers is one of the church's major problems: most parishioners have a family and a job and many of them live far away from the church, so they do not always find time to support the parish's projects," Posashko said.

The church's current owner ­ the Institute of Design-Technology Informatics (IKTI), part of Russia's Academy of Sciences, is leasing the building to a law firm, something IKTI spokeswoman Olga Fyodorova claims it has to do: "We are forced by circumstances to rent the building to a legal firm because we have to pay utilities and expenses," she said, adding "the lack of budget money is still a problem for us."

But Ilyashenko argues that commercial interests are behind the institute's reluctance to return the property to the church: "Because the institute has been registered as an academic entity, the government covers most of its utilities expenses. In other words, maintaining the building costs them nothing, while renting it out brings in a lot of money," Ilyashenko said. He is also skeptical of IKTI's claims that it invested a lot of money in reconstruction of the church and needs reimbursement.

According to Prostov, the Russian Property Commission didn't find any traces of research activity in using this building. Furthermore a Russian Academy of Sciences panel found that personnel at the institute numbered only about 20 people, which is not enough for serious research activity. "I believe that the institute doesn't conduct any useful educational or research activity at all," he said, "It remains unclear when reconstruction of our parish will be finished: we can't start a complete restoration because that is only possible when the church is returned."

But there are some positive examples, such as the return of the Saint John the Evangelist Church, which had belonged to the Moscow History Museum. Returned to the Orthodox Church in 1992, the museum had been using the building until now, regardless of its bad condition and church claims. "Completion of reconstruction of the church is scheduled for November," said Hageman Peter Eremeev, dean of The St. John the Evangelist Russian Orthodox Institute. "The church has a loyal community consisting of around 1,500 people, including professors and students of the Russian Orthodox Institute." Until now they have been conducting religious ceremonies outside the church, near the entrance, because the Moscow History Museum has used the church for exhibitions. When the "Law on Return" was finally adopted in November, the dispute between the church and the museum resulted in the Mayor's Office ruling in favor of the church. The museum now has to vacate the building and move to the Provision Stores Exhibition Hall on Zubovsky Bulvar by October 1.

Most Russians (60 percent) are also concerned about religious property return, according to a VTsIOM poll conducted in July of 2010. While 49 percent supported churches in their attempts to retrieve property, 19 percent opposed this idea. Posashko is among those who look at the problem in different ways. "What we need is a reasonable approach and a compromise," she said. "When applying the law [on redistribution] in practice, we should follow common sense. There is no need to oust museums from buildings or deprive an institute of the possibility to do research for the sake of the church. Similarly, the church can't lose its space and occupy a ramshackle building just because of the interests of an institute. It's not Christian."

Hageman Peter views the "Law on the Return of Church Property" as a good tool to resolve conflicts between religious and governmental organizations because it proposes providing the latter with administrative buildings of equivalent value. "The law does allow both the government and the church to build up a collaborative relationship, which satisfies both parties," he said.

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