Bureaucracy vs. religion

On March 29 a court hearing will be held in St. Petersburg concerning the closing of a Hindu temple in that city. RIR spoke to Suren Karapetyan, head of the Vedic Center for Spiritual Development in which the temple is located.

Several weeks ago information began circulating on the web concerning this scandalous incident. The 13th Court of Arbitration ruled that the largest Hindu temple in Russia must be closed and practically destroyed.

The stated reason for this court order was the alleged violation of fire safety rules by the building’s tenant. However, the building’s tenant (the Vedic Center for Spiritual Development) maintains that the court’s decision was made in violation of material and procedural rules.  

The rental question

The disputed building originally belonged to the government. In 1992, during perestroika, it was in wretched condition. 

“The building was completely unfit for habitation. It was only half-built,” said Suren Karapetyan, co-head of the Vedic Center for Spiritual Development and head of Another World foundation. “It had no staircases, no water, no heat and no doors.”  

“We took over that building in that condition,” Karapetyan went on. “We leased it from the government for 49 years. It’s not hard to understand that the rent according to the lease we signed then was not high.” 

Over the next few years the Center repaired the building at its own expense. The ground floor became the main hall of Russia’s largest Hindu temple with an area of over 500 sq. meters. The rest of the building became an enormous cultural center, known in St. Petersburg as the Center for Spiritual Development: Another World. It is visited by tens of thousands of people who attend the center’s classes in yoga, Indian philosophy, culture and traditions. The entire complex is spread over eight floors with a total area of more than 4000 sq. meters. The building existed like that for close to fifteen years.

The situation changed in 2006 when the building came under new ownership. The new owner, the joint stock company GosNIIkhimanalit, assumed all the rights and obligations of the lessor under the terms of the 1992 lease.

Efforts to have the lease rescinded have been in effect ever since: legal actions and complaints by the joint stock company as well as checks by fire inspectors, which ultimately led to the court’s decision to rescind the center’s lease.   

Judicial violations

In December 2011 the 13th Court of Arbitration in St. Petersburg ruled that the agreement between the Vedic Center for Spiritual Development (the lessee) and the joint stock company GosNIIkhimanalit (the lessor) should be annulled and that the center should be evicted (along with the Hindu temple) from the premises.

The court based its decision on multiple violations of fire safety rules by the Center. 

hindu temple saint-petersburg russia building

 The entire complex is spread over eight

floors with a total area of more than

4000 sq. meters. 

"The fire inspectors say that there are not enough emergency exits. But can that be a reason to rescind a lease?” Suren Karapetyan asked — and then immediately answered his own question: “Of course not. Moreover, the temple eliminated many of the violations by the date stipulated, but the joint stock company still insisted that the lease be rescinded. That is very strange. On top of that, the court overlooked certain facts that make its decision null and void.”  

“For example, the court made its decision without hearing testimony from Another World. Yet Another World is one of the parties directly affected by this trial.”   

“Another of the joint stock company’s complaints was that the premises had been subleased by the Center for Spiritual Development to Another World. However, there are documents confirming that the Center has the right to sublease so long as the premises are used for activities permitted for religious organizations.”

A game of judicial formulas as well as bureaucratic details allowed the joint stock company to get its way. 

However, according to Karapetyan, the joint stock company’s real aim was not to evict the temple but to raise the rent: “Right after rescinding the lease, the company presented us with a new lease in which the rent was six times what it is now.” 

The situation at this moment 

On February 7 the Center for Spiritual Development filed an appeal with a request to reverse the ruling by the 13th Court of Arbitration and halt the eviction of the temple.

According to Karapetyan, in the temple there is property whose incorrect transportation would constitute an insult to the Hindu faith. “The altar, statues of gods — these are cultural artifacts. The court understands that. It is in part for this reason that the bailiffs have not yet evicted our center from the building.”  

The eviction has been stayed until a decision can be received from a higher court. 

“We sent appeals to twenty authorities,” said Mr. Karapetyan. “These include appeals to the President, the Prime Minister, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Supreme Court of Arbitration, as well as the Indian Consulate and Embassy in Moscow. We have received answers from almost all of these authorities. No concrete solution was offered, but many said that we have a perfect right to appeal to the highest authorities. Such an answer is clear and logical.”

The first hearing in this case will be held on March 29. The center hopes that this hearing will also be the last.  

We are not complaining

The destruction of temples has been a typical feature of various periods of human history. This concerned Russia in Soviet times. In India there have been cases where Hindu temples were razed.  Judaic shrines have been destroyed. That was long ago, in other times. Today this no longer happens. In a civilized country, in peace time, it is incomprehensible.

“However, we are not complaining,” Suren Karapetyan said proudly. “A judicial system exists, let it act according to the law. The owner should not take illegal action against us. We ask that the government ensure the lawfulness of the entire procedure involved in settling the disputes that have arisen at every level. I think that the highest court will reverse the incorrect ruling, at least I believe that.”

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