MOSCOW, February 24 (RIA Novosti) - Russia plans to change the ownership structure of property used by religious groups, a move that could make the Orthodox Church a major real estate owner and cut budget spending, a business daily said on Tuesday.source
The bill drafted by the economics ministry proposes handing over buildings, land plots and other property to religious organizations that currently use them free of charge. The document also proposes returning all church property seized by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, Kommersant reported.
Experts said the Russian Orthodox Church, the country's dominant religion, could emerge as a major real estate owner, the paper said.
"Only [gas and railroad monopolies] Gazprom and Russian Railways could then be compared with the Church [in terms of property ownership]," Roman Cheptsov from Prime City Properties consultancy told the daily. "In Moscow, for example, 1 hectare of land is worth about $6-$7 million."
The economics ministry declined to comment on the bill, the paper said. While drafting the document in 2007, however, the ministry said it was aimed at removing the expense of maintaining religious buildings from the federal budget.
An opposition Communist Party leader said the move was designed to improve public trust in the Kremlin amid the ongoing financial crisis and warned that ensuing commercial activity involving the property could harm the mission of religious organizations, the paper said.
"Some clergy will want to engage in commerce, rent out premises and land," Vladimir Kashin, also a lawmaker, told the daily. "We must prevent extremes, or otherwise we will have gilded churches and growing poverty and immorality."
Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy, said the Church would have to review its economic policies if the bill was approved to support churches outside large cities, which may not have sufficient funds to maintain or rebuild the buildings, the paper reported.
In a separate interview on Tuesday, Vigilyansky said the Church has often been returned virtually derelict monasteries and cathedrals, and the state could help churches, especially those in remote regions, rebuild them.
Vigilyansky said the late Patriarch Alexy II had only allowed the lease of auxiliary church premises on rare occasions to raise money for reconstruction projects, Kommersant reported.
Since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union, the Church has regained the ownership of over 100 of 16,000 churches and cathedrals, the paper said.
"If religious organizations become legitimate owners of their property, they will be independent of the state, which will lose its levers to influence on them," a senior Muslim cleric, Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov, told the paper admitting that mosques would rent out extra premises to support the Muslim community.
Rabbi Zinovy Kogan told the daily: "We will rent extra premises, but will spend earnings on welfare projects, for example soup houses."
Kommersant said the bill would be discussed by a government commission on religious organizations in March.