Varieties of reports about religion law

LA Times, Washington Post Service

MOSCOW (19 June)-With leaders of Russia's so-called "traditional" religions-Russian Orthodox, Muslim, and Judaism-sitting as guests in the government's box in Parliament, Russian legislators overwhelmingly passed new restrictions on minority churches Wednesday.

In a vote of 337-5, the Duma, or lower house of Parliament, passed the new law on religion in less than a half hour, without debate even from democrats. international human rights groups have denounced the law because it sets up two unequal categories of religion.

"Religious organizations" would have all the rights of a legal entity. "Religious groups" of at least 10 members would be allowed to operate prayer groups or services in private homes. They would be required to register the names and addresses of all members with local governments.

They would not have legal identity until they have been registered in Russia for at least 15 years-a near impossibility for all but a few churches that were willing to make the compromises necessary to gain registration from the atheist Soviet state.

It will make it hard, for example, for members of Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon, Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist and even splinter Orthodox churches to operate. Without legal status, these religious groups would not be able to rent public space for services and would find it difficult to conduct any financial activity, invite foreigners to Russia, or set up church schools for children. ..

"This is the most severe legislative setback for human rights in Moscow since the end of the Soviet Union," said Lawrence Uzell, Moscow representative o f the Oxford based Keston Institute, a religious rights group.

If the law were carried to its extreme, Uzell said, "religious groups" wouldn't be able to take up collections, conduct funeral services in a cemetery or minister to a member in a hospital.

He said there is a "50-50 chance" of a presidential veto of the law.

President Boris Yeltsin has vetoed similar legislation before, but human rights advocates are not certain what the current political climate will bring. The law revises the 1990 "glasnost" law on freedom of conscience which was an unprecedented liberalization of religious activity during the Soviet period here, later reinforced by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship.

The new law specifically recognizes Orthodoxy as "an inseparable part of the all-Russian historical, spiritual and cultural heritage," and acknowledges Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions and local beliefs long-existent in the far-flung regions of Russia as "traditional" religions.

"This is the (Russian Orthodox) Patriarchate's way of suppressing competition, and it's the Communist Party's way of appealing to Orthodoxy, a cheap way of bashing the West," Uzell said.

Duma defies Protestant protests by voting to tighten control of religion

by Andrei Zolotov

Moscow, 19 June (ENI)--The Communist-dominated lower chamber of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday, 18 June for religious legislation to protect Russia's traditional faiths and severely restrict the activities of foreign missionaries and minority religious groups.

Critics said the new law would be a gross violation of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience, but supporters, including the Russian Orthodox Church, which has lobbied heavily for the new bill, said it would protect Russians from "destructive" cults and prevent further division of the nation along religious lines.

As the chancellor of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's chief imam and chief rabbi looked on approvingly from the government gallery, deputies on the floor of the Duma voted by 337 votes to 5 for the bill's second reading.

The law, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations", overturns the liberal legislation on religion adopted in 1990. The new bill is expected to pass on the third reading in the near future and will then go to President Boris Yeltsin for his signature, unless the upper chamber, Federation Council, disagrees. This is considered unlikely. However President Yeltsin is likely to come under strong pressure, especially from abroad, to veto the bill.

The Duma, despite requests from Russia's main Protestant denominations - Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh-day-Adventists - to postpone the vote, approved the draft bill which had been prepared by legislators in secret, ignoring a previous draft approved by representatives of religious groups.

Though there appears to be consensus among Russia's mainstream religious leaders that the 1990 law is excessively liberal, the current draft is even harsher than a restrictive measure passed in 1993 by the then parliament, the Supreme Soviet, and vetoed by President Yeltsin under pressure from the international community.

"What is approved today is in complete contradiction with the Constitution," Vladimir Ryakhovsky, president of the Christian Legal Centre, a human rights organisation which provides legal aid to religious groups, told ENI. Ryakhovsky, a Pentecostal Christian, was a member of the original working group which drafted the law, but his views were ignored.

The law targets the many new religious groups, local and foreign, which have flourished since the end of officially-imposed atheism. The law will also make life harder for groups which break away from the central structures of mainstream religions, such as Orthodox Christians who do not recognise the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The anti-liberal stance in the new legislation has been fuelled by Russian resentment of the widespread activities of foreign missionaries and the proliferation of non-traditional groups like the Aum Shinrikyo and the White Brotherhood.

The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently complained about the missionary activities of foreign non-Orthodox Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and has accused other churches of "proselytising" on its "canonical territory".

Supporters of religious rights say that the new law violates the constitutional freedom of religion. The bill's preamble defines Orthodoxy as an "inalienable part of Russia's historical, spiritual and cultural heritage", and names Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other "traditionally existing religions and local beliefs" as objects of the state's "respect".

The law distinguishes between "religious organisations", which will possess full legal rights, and "religious groups", which will have to wait 15 years before applying to become organisations. In the meantime, the groups will not be able to own property, publish literature, or hold worship in public places.

The law will ban religious organisations from converting children against their will and without the consent of both parents. Special government bodies will be set up to examine the beliefs and practices of applicants for registration.

Foreigners will be able to engage in "professional" religious activity - such as missionary work - only if they are invited to do so by a Russian religious organisation. Foreign religious organisations will be able to set up branches here only if they have accreditation from an existing organisation in Russia. All existing religious organisations will have to re-register by the end of 1998.

The law grants registered Russian religious organisations the right to publish religious books and manufacture religious objects. It also promises government "support" for traditional faiths.

"We are talking about the establishment of a social partnership between the state and religious organisations," said the bill's sponsor and prime mover, Viktor Zorkaltsev, a Communist Deputy in the Duma.

Zorkaltsev, who is chairman of the Committee on Public Organisations and Religious Associations, said that "the current situation does not satisfy anybody, except for pseudo-religious organisations taking advantage of this confusion".

But the Russian branch of the International Association of Religious Freedom, which includes representatives of major religions in Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church as an observer, released a statement saying that the bill would become a "medicine that is more harmful than the disease".

Leaders of the historically-dominant Russian religions expressed satisfaction with the draft.

Speaking to ENI, Archbishop Sergy of Solnechnogorsk, chancellor of the Russian Orthodox Church, praised the law as "very reasonable" and a "serious step forward". He added that it would help Russia's traditional religions to "make up for what was lost during the Soviet period".

Archbishop Sergy stressed that the law was aimed at stabilising the internal situation in Russia and would prevent further division for religious reasons.

"The religious and confessional pluralism that exists in the United States, and is historically justified there, should not be automatically transplanted to Russian soil, which has not had such experience," he said.

Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, leader of Central Russia's Muslims, said after the passing of the bill: "We have to protect, above all, the interests of those believers who belong to Russia's traditional religions."

However Valeri Borschev, the liberal deputy chairman of the Duma's Committee on Public and Religious Organisations, told ENI that the new law was unconstitutional. It was "not one, but several steps backwards," he said.

Larry Uzell, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, an Oxford-based group which monitors religious freedom, said the bill would put a "legal cloud" over the thousands of new religious organisations that have emerged in Russia in the past 15 years. He told ENI that the law would be hard to enforce and would create a "golden opportunity" for local bureaucrats to harass religious groups and extort bribes.

"Our only hope is that the president [Boris Yeltsin] will veto the bill and send it back to parliament," said Ryakhovsky. Russian and foreign opponents of the restrictions are certain to engage in strong lobbying against the bill while it is being considered by President Yeltsin and his advisers at the Kremlin.

But Uzell said that, given the current political climate, it is "far from certain" that Yeltsin will veto the law.

(c) Ecumenical News International

Kremlin to put clamp on minority religions

By Alan Philps in Moscow

International News Electronic Telegraph Friday 20 June 1997 Issue 756

RUSSIA is set to pass a law severely restricting the freedom of religious minorities and foreign missionaries, which critics say is a thow-back to the communist era.

The Bill aims to clamp down on the activities of sects and cults which have mushroomed in Russia since religious repression ended in 1990. But it will also affect smaller Churches, particularly Protestants such as the Pentecostalists and Seventh Day Adventists. The Bill was approved overwhelmingly by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on Wednesday.

For the first time in modern Russia, it establishes the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church as an "inalienable part of Russian historical, spiritual and cultural heritage". Other traditional beliefs, such as Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, are accorded respect.

All religions will have to apply for registration by the end of next year. To have full rights, they need to prove they have existed for more than 50 years in over half of Russia's provinces. Sects must get a document from the local authority saying they have existed for at least 15 years - impossible for those that were not recognised in communist times.

Those that fail the test will be banned from owning property, publishing literature or organising worship in public places. Foreign missionaries - against whom the Orthodox Church has been waging a fierce campaign - will not be allowed to function unless invited by an accredited religion.

The law replaces a more liberal text adopted in 1990. This is blamed for allowing cults such as the Japanese Aum Sinrikyo, which carried out a gas attack on the Tokyo underground, and the Moonies to flourish in Russia. The new text cements the warm relations between the Orthodox Church and the Communists - the dominant force in parliament - who, despite their atheistic origins, see the priesthood as an ally in turning back the tide of Western influence.

The Communist sponsor of the bill, Viktor Zorkaltsev, said it would establish a "social partnership" between the state and accredited religions. Lev Levinson, secretary of the presidential chamber on human rights, said that Russia was now ruled by a spirit of "clerical bolshevism". He added: "This is very dangerous and a step backwards for freedom of conscience."

There is no doubt that some destructive sects now operate in Russia, including satanists. But Mr Levinson said that underground cults would continue unaffected, as they never intended to operate openly. "The evil of sects has been artificially exaggerated by the Church in order to fan hatred for religious minorities and foreigners," he said.

The Orthodox Church regards Baptists, who have been persecuted by Tsars and communists with equal severity, as especially dangerous because of their commitment to evangelism and the support they get from America.

The more xenophobic Orthodox priests warn their congregations that American Baptists come to Russia to steal their children.

Recently a consignment of Russian-language Bibles from America was ceremonially burned by militant churchmen on the grounds that they constituted "Baptist propaganda".

The Catholic Church is also regarded with ancient animosity, but it is allowed to operate on the understanding that it does not proselytise.

Yeltsin Poses the Last Obstacle to a Bill Curbing Religious Freedom in Russia

Neela Banerjee, Special to The Christian Science Monitor

MOSCOW (20 June) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin must decide within the next few weeks whether to sign into law a sweeping new bill that would establish the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church and severely curtails the rights of other religions.

The bill passed Wednesday by a huge majority in the Duma, the lower house of parliament. It calls for denominations to prove they have been registered with Russian authorities for at least 15 years in order to receive legal status.

Denominations ranging from Roman Catholics to Protestants to small dissident Russian Orthodox groups led an underground existence during the Soviet era, which ended in 1991. Without legal status under the new law, these churches could not rent space for meetings and services, open bank accounts, publish literature, or bring in foreign speakers.

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church maintains that such restrictions are necessary to protect against sects such as Aum Shinri Kyo, which was responsible for a 1995 poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

But critics say that as the church faces growing competition from other local Christian denominations and foreign churches, it has responded by championing a kind of religious protectionism.

Ultimately, the bill reveals Russia's uneasiness with notions such as freedom of worship and separation of church and state, particularly because the interests of the Orthodox Church and the ruling authorities have long been intertwined.

"In Russia, there's always been this sense that there is a true faith ... and that religion is not a private choice but a social issue," says Sergei Vurgaft, a deacon in a Moscow church of the Old Believers, which broke with Russian Orthodoxy 300 years ago. "The government has always regulated religious activity, and the Moscow Patriarchate has always been the state religion."

A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate denies that the church is trying to win favored status or drive out other religions.

"There are no limitations on the existence of Protestant groups, and there are no prohibitions against other Orthodox denominations," says Viktor Kalinin, legal counsel and adviser to the Moscow Patriarchate. "Those who say otherwise have an agenda to create scandal."

The bill allows for religious groups to exist informally, but their activities would be sharply limited.

Mr. Yeltsin should receive the bill in about two weeks. It's unclear if he will sign it into law. Diplomatic sources in Moscow say that President Clinton may lobby Yeltsin for a veto when the two men meet in Denver this weekend at a meeting of the leaders of the world's seven most-industrialized nations and Russia. In 1993, Yeltsin vetoed a similarly restrictive religion bill in part due to pressure from the US Congress.

The bill shows the Moscow Patriarchate's determination to preserve its powerful role, critics say. In Imperial Russia, Orthodoxy was the state church. During the Soviet era, the church submitted to Communist Party control, including infiltration by the KGB, in order to function openly.

Since then, the church has remained close to the government. It has used special tax exemptions, for example, to import cigarettes and alcohol duty-free. It has also refrained from criticizing the Yeltsin administration.

Lawrence Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, a British organization that monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet bloc, says that Russians not affiliated with any church are increasingly turning to long-familiar denominations such as the Old Believers, the Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists.

"More and more people are getting fed up with the church leadership being in bed with a corrupt oligarchy," says Mr. Uzzell, himself an Orthodox church member.

The church's unlikely ally in this legislative effort has been the Communist Party, which controls the Duma. The Communists have backed this initiative to shed their past atheist image and to regain control of an important aspect of society, analysts say.

"This is like reliving the past, like during the USSR when they told us, 'We'll show you how to practice religion,' " says the Rev. Viktor Bartsevich, chancellor of Moscow's Catholic Archdiocese.

Mr. Kalinin claims that the draft law was reviewed by representatives of various faiths who signed off on its stipulations. But Fr. Bartsevich says Catholic representatives last saw a draft law in December 1996 that was radically different from this one.

"Of course we can't agree with this project," Bartsevich says. "It goes against a democratic approach to religion."

Donald Jarvis, president of Moscow's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), which has a membership of about 6,500 throughout Russia, adds: "It's clear that whoever backs this law follows this Platonic idea that the republic should be static.

"That's a disastrous view at a time when Russians are facing so many problems and are trying to find different ways to cope with them," he says.

(c) Christian Science Monitor