by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service 16 April 1996

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has proposed amendments to Russia's 1990 law on religious freedom forbidding independent activity on Russian territory by foreign religious organisations. Under the Patriarchate's proposed text, obtained by Keston News Service, 'foreign religious agents' (inostrannye religioznye deyateli') will be allowed to function only if they are invited by, and channel all their activities through, domestic Russian religious groups.

The Patriarchate's proposed wording, received by the Duma's committee on religion in late March, differs markedly from the 1990 law, which specifically states that 'foreign citizens' and 'persons without citizenship' along with Russian citizens have the right to exercise their freedom of conscience by creating either religious or atheistic organisations. It even differs from the latest version of the Duma committee's own draft bill, also obtained by KNS, which allows foreign religious organisations to register under the same procedures as domestic ones.

The Patriarchate's proposal and proposed amendments from other sources are now being considered by a 'working group' consisting of members of the Duma, representatives from the executive branch, and leaders of various religious confessions. Formally the group is chaired by VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV, chairman of the Duma's religious committee, but the most active role has been taken by VALERI BORSHCHOV, a member of GRIGORI YAVLINSKI'S 'Yabloko' bloc and a prominent spokesman for religious freedom. Sources in the committee told Keston that they do not expect the group to complete its task of drafting a compromise bill any sooner than the end of April, and that the Duma will therefore not have time to complete action on any such bill before the presidential elections in June. One committee source flatly predicted that 'the Patriarchate's amendments will not be adopted in their current form because they are simply too unconstitutional and contrary to common sense.'

Challenging the widely held view that the Communist leaders like Zorkaltsev will easily find a common language with the Patriarchate, Borshchov aide LEV LEVINSON told Keston on 5 April that 'the Communists are now trying to avoid this issue. It's not advantageous to them since they don't want to help the Patriarch, who clearly is supporting Yeltsin.' Levinson said that even the issue of foreign missionaries, which has been at the centre of the debate on religious freedom for the last four years, is now fading in importance. At least as perceived by both the Patriarchate and the Duma, he said, 'the level of missionary activity has fallen in central Russia--though there are a lot of Korean missionaries in the Far East.' More important for the Patriarchate, he said, are issues such as state subsidies and tax exemptions for its own activities, the complete return of all buildings owned by the Orthodox Church before 1917, and opportunities to increase the Orthodox presence in the schools--on all of which there is real, principled disagreement with the Communists.

Other amendments proposed by the Patriarch would:

--explicitly authorise the teaching of 'doctrines of the historical religious and moral traditions of the peoples of the Russian Federation' in both state and private schools by 'official representatives of religious organisations.'
--require the state to return buildings and land formerly owned by a religious organisation if that orgranisation requests their return for religious use.
--explicitly authorise state aid to the charitable, cultural and educational activities of religious organisations.
--allow a court to liquidate a religious organisation which systematically violates its own charter ('ustav').

The exact language of the proposed amendment's key passage on foreign religious organisations is as follows: 'The representation (representatives) of a foreign religious organisation, and also foreign religious agents, entering Russia on the invitation of Russian religious organisations have the right to carry out religious activities only through the religious organisation which has invited them. Independent activities by foreign religious organisations are forbidden.' (END)

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