Around the Jewish World with Land Restitution on Agenda, Russian Jews Not Sure if They’ll Gain

Jews and other minority religions may benefit from a Russian lawmaker’s controversial initiative to return land confiscated from the Russian Orthodox Church 80 years ago.

According to a plan proposed by Ivan Starikov, a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, the Russian Orthodox Church could receive up to 3 million hectares of farmland and other land that was confiscated under the 1918 Bolshevik decree that nationalized church property.

But the Orthodox Church will not be the only beneficiary of the initiative if it ever becomes law.

Starikov, who chairs the chamber’s agrarian committee, said other established religions should be also given their share of property lost in the communist nationalization. Russia’s religions law explicitly lists Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as faiths with a long history in Russia that therefore have a privileged status.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II welcomed the initiative during a recent meeting with leading members of the Federation Council. The initiative resulted from lobbying efforts on behalf of Russia’s largest faith.

Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Orthodox Church was among Russia’s biggest landowners. The church already has regained ownership of hundreds of churches, monasteries and other properties since the fall of communism.

But the proposed bill would not mean full restitution of land once owned by the Orthodox Church and other faiths, according to Starikov. Rather, it is designed to fill in a blank spot in a new land law that comes into force on January 2003.

That law, signed by President Vladimir Putin late last month as part of a push to liberalize the economy, allows the sale of farmland for the first time since the czarist era.

In addition, the new law says religious groups can rent or buy land they currently use. In contrast, current law allows religious groups to use land occupied by religious buildings for free or for a nominal rent, but does not allow them to own land.

The new land law will mean that all religious organizations will begin to pay for the land they currently use, including the plots where churches, mosques and synagogues are located, said Zinovy Kogan, executive director of the Congress of Religious Communities and Organizations and a member of the government’s Interfaith Council, a consultative body.

Leaders of minority religions, including Muslims, Catholics and Jews, say they are more concerned about the fate of the land occupied by their temples rather than the possibility to acquire farmland.

Responding to these concerns, the Interfaith Council is now preparing amendments to the new land law that would allow religions to retain the status quo without paying for the land where houses of worship and other religious facilities stand.

If the amendments are not approved, many congregations, especially smaller ones, will go bankrupt, Kogan said.

Lawmakers will start to work on Starikov’s bill in the fall so that it can be passed by the end of this year.

The fate of the bill is hard to predict.

Good relations between Putin, a practicing Orthodox Christian, and Alexei led commentators to assume that Starikov’s motion would not have appeared without Putin’s preliminary approval.

But one top government official already has criticized the proposed legislation.

Alexey Volin, the Cabinet’s deputy chief of staff, noted that “Russia is a secular state, and the church cannot have any special economic privileges.”

The sponsors of Starikov’s bill say the land given to religious groups can be used by religious organizations for farming purposes or rented out by churches. At the same time, the bill will ensure that religious groups won’t lose their nonprofit status if they use the land to make money.

The initiative generated front-page articles in most major national dailies, many of which were skeptical of the bill.

The Jewish community appears bewildered by the proposed bill, and some express doubts if synagogues would actually benefit from it.

Unlike churches and mosques, Russian synagogues “never in their history owned land,” said Alexander Lokshin, a leading Moscow-based historian of Russian Jewry.

The only kinds of land that the Jewish communities could own were cemeteries and plots under synagogues, and Jewish religious institutions were not involved in agricultural production, Lokshin said.

Adolph Shayevich, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, said synagogues could benefit if Starikov’s bill allows congregations to use land rent-free. He said this would give a boost to new synagogue construction and ensure financial stability of existing congregations.

Kogan, of the Congress of Religious Communities and Organizations, said that although synagogues were not landowners before Soviet rule, Jews should receive land as compensation for lost property if other faiths do.

If that happens, “Jewish religious organizations for the first time in Russian history will own land that can be used to grow grapes to make kosher wine or to raise cattle to produce kosher meat,” Kogan said.

Unlike some former Soviet bloc countries that have begun to settle accounts with organizations and individuals whose property was seized under communism, Russia has yet to enact meaningful, wide-scale restitution laws. The return of former houses of worship to their original owners is the only form of property restitution in Russia, and many congregations have encountered significant difficulties when trying to regain ownership of their former synagogues.

In fact, some Jewish leaders fear that large-scale restitution might have unfavorable consequences for the Jewish community.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, warned against such efforts.

“What is possible in Central Europe and the Baltic states is not possible, not justified and not needed in Russia,” he said.

Communism lasted at least three decades less in those parts of Europe than in Russia, Satanovsky said, a significant difference that poses a major obstacle for successful restitution process.

One solution that might satisfy the Jewish community would be for the synagogues to receive the plots of land they currently occupy, he said.

“If we push any harder it could lead to a social explosion, even to the growth of anti-Semitism,” he warned. “This is an extremely dangerous issue, and we have to be very cautious here.”

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