by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service

In a surprise breakthrough for opponents of religious freedom, Russia's parliament is on the verge of enacting major new restrictions on minority faiths. The chairman of the Duma's committee on religion, Communist deputy Viktor Zorkaltsev, has scheduled a committee meeting on short notice for Thursday, 5 June, to vote on legislation drafted behind closed doors by a small group which excluded even the committee's pro-freedom vice chairman, Valeri Borshchov. Committee sources told Keston News Service that the committee is certain to pass the bill, as is the full Duma later this month. The only hope of blocking it, far from certain, is a veto by President Yeltsin.

'Borshchov has in effect been kicked out of the process, along with many others in the working group,' said the committee source. The informal working group, consisting of representatives of religious confessions as well as the legislative and executive branches, had been advising Zorkaltsev's committee for many months on proposals to amend or replace Russia's 1990 law on freedom of conscience. Presiding over its sessions, and in general playing a more active role in fine-tuning the new legislation than any other member of the committee, had been deputy Borshchov - with chairman Zorkaltsev's tacit approval.

But on 26 May the committee hosted a meeting of what one source called a 'faction' of the working group. Several confessions, such as the Roman Catholics, were not represented; Borshchov was not invited, though the meeting took place within yards of his office. The gathering was apparently dominated by representatives of the Chernomyrdin government, the Ministry of Justice and the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow - all of whom support sweeping changes to the 1990 law. The full working group, with representatives of all major religious groups in Russia, has not met since December.

In another break from Borshchov's methods, the members of the working group have not even received copies of the new legislation which the committee will formally consider on 5 June. However, Keston has learned that the bill will probably include a proposal long sought by the Moscow Patriarchate: a ban on independent activity by foreign religious groups, requiring them to get invitations from Russian organisations before they can operate on Russian territory. One committee source said that this provision is 'clearly unconstitutional'.

Another proposed section would deny the status and rights of a 'legal personality' to a religious group until it has been operating in Russia for at least 15 years. One effect would be to restrict a new church's freedom to engage in financial and property transactions. A committee source said that this provision should not affect groups such as the Baptists, who have been present in Russia for more than a century - but might create problems for the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Hare Krishna movement, which have long been active but not always registered.

Keston has also learned that the new bill has a preamble which proclaims the state's 'respect' for the contributions to Russia' cultural and spiritual heritage of four specifically named confessions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism - adding vaguely, 'and others'. Another new provision would apparently grant 'all-Russian status' only to those religious groups which have congregations in at least half of Russia's provinces. However, variant working was also under consideration, allowing a group to claim this status if it had at least 100,000 members anywhere in the country. It was not clear what a group would have to do in order to prove its claim for membership.

Several of these ideas were discussed - though no specific text was distributed - during a 29 May meeting of religious leaders and other specialists, hosted by Yeltsin's staff. One source who was present told Keston that the atmosphere of that meeting was 'very tense', with an official from the Ministry for Nationalities calling all non-Orthodox groups 'sects'. (END)