ENGLISH VERSION: Conflict between two Churches will be shown in Strasbourg. Appeal against the ban on “Bailiff Piety”, the documentary film about the confiscation of the relics of Suzdal Saints from ROAC, lodged with ECHR

The dispute between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) over the right to own the relics of the Saints Euphymios and Euphrosynia of Suzdal that ended in 2012 after the confiscation of these relics by the authorities is echoed now in Strasbourg. Publicist Alexander Soldatov, a follower of ROAC, lodged his appeal against the ban on the “Bailiff Piety”, the documentary film about the dispute, with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This film was found extremist by the court. Alexander Verkhovsky, an expert from Sova Center, regarded the ban as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the appeal was characterized as a publicity move in the State Duma Committee for Public Associations and Religious Organizations.

The conflict described in the appeal from Alexander Soldatov, publicist and ROAC follower, lodged on his behalf by Damir Gainutdinov, legal expert of International Human Rights Group Agora, flared up in Vladimir in 2012. ROC demanded the court to return the relics of the Saints Euphymios and Euphrosynia of Suzdal to the Federal Property Management Agency (Rosimuschestvo) so that they could be transferred to ROC thereafter. The relics had been in permanent safekeeping on the premises of Tsar Constantine Church in Suzdal. In 1998 this parish moved to the Orthodox Autonomous Church that had earlier dissented from ROC. In 2012 the representatives of ROC obtained the decision of the Arbitration Court of Vladimir Region on the confiscation of the relics (and before that – the confiscation of Tsar Constantine Church) from ROAC.

One year later the “Bailiff Piety” documentary film was published by Credo.ru website co-founded by Alexander Soldatov, author of the appeal. The film made by Mr. Soldatov’s colleagues features the footage of the attempts of the court bailiffs to confiscate the relics after the court decision and also shows the videos of the Patriarch Kirill’s speeches. The filmmakers criticized the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The deputies of this Party had supported ROC in the judicial dispute. In August 2014 the Public Prosecutor of Vladimir demanded that the Court of Oktyabrsky District of this city bans the film for the reason of being extremist. The materials of the special investigation activities carried out by the officers of the Federal Security Service of Russia in respect of Mr. Soldatov were cited as the justification for the Public Prosecutor’s claim. As noted in the expert opinion presented to the court by the Public Prosecutor, the film showing Josef Goebbels, a political figure of the Nazi Germany, along with the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, "contains the statements of hostile and aggressive nature in relation to ROC and Orthodox believers". According to this expert opinion, "the montage and the video sequences justify the necessity to take hostile actions... since it negatively characterizes ROC as an avaricious business corporation... ideologically approximated to... aggressive and occult ideological instructions of national socialism".

As a result, the video has been banned as extremist, although it is still available in the Internet, including the YouTube channel. As noted in Mr. Soldatov’s appeal, the court infringed upon his rights to freedom of speech and fair trial since, in his opinion, the film contained criticism only against ROC and State Duma deputies, but did not contain any calls for violence. Besides, there was no legal evaluation of the arguments brought forward by the defense.

Alexander Verkhovsky, Head of Sova Center, the institution that monitors the enforcement of anti-extremist laws, also believes that “Bailiff Piety” has been banned illegitimately. "The ban on the film restricts the freedom of expression. It was imposed for the reasons which I deem to be contrary to the European Convention", said Verkhovsky in an interview to Kommersant newspaper. Victor Zolochevsky, LDPR Deputy of State Duma, member of its Committee for Public Associations and Religious Organizations and a representative of Vladimir Region in the Russian Parliament, who had made an inquiry into the dispute, is of a different opinion. "In my view, this is a publicity move made in order to attract attention to the issue. As for me personally, I would not want my children to watch films made by some obscure priests or some offshoots of traditional religions", said Zolochevsky. In his opinion, the dispute over the relics was settled as long ago as in 2012. "The relics were of value to all Orthodox believers, but, as far as I know, ROAC did not allow access to them for everyone. Had the parties been ready for a dialogue at the outset, nothing of this sort would have happened”, stated Zolochevsky.

Grigory Tumanov,
KOMMERSANT, 5 May 2016

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