Parliament Moves to Restrict Activities of Foreign Religious Creeds

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 24, 1997; Page A12
The Washington Post

The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, gave its approval today to legislation that would sharply restrict the activities of foreign missionaries and many religious faiths here except for the "traditional" religions of Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

The measure is being closely watched by human rights advocates as a barometer of Russia's commitment to freedom of conscience. Opponents of the legislation say it would be a giant step backward, toward state control of religion, and they are urging President Boris Yeltsin to veto it.

"The new legislation is . . . oriented toward the revival of Soviet religious policy," said Gleb Yakunin, a former Russian Orthodox priest and a member of parliament. "Only today, instead of the Communist one, it proposes to establish a dominant clerical ideology and . . . to discriminate against believers in other religions." The 450-member State Duma is dominated by Communists and nationalists.

The legislation has its origins in fears by some leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church that its growth and revival are threatened by an onslaught of foreign missionaries. Persecuted and pressured during the Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Church is struggling to reassert itself and feels vulnerable to competition from other religious sects, especially those that have been proselytizing in Russia since the Soviet collapse, according to specialists here.

The church has bridled especially at foreign missionaries who have come to Russia bearing generous humanitarian aid. Tensions have also flared in outlying regions between missionaries and local authorities.

According to Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, which studies religious life in Russia and Eastern Europe, about a quarter of Russian regional governments have adopted laws restricting the rights of minority religions. Uzzell said a Roman Catholic priest in Belgorod was recently told he could not celebrate Mass there because his parish is a foreign religious organization.

The new legislation was overwhelmingly approved, 300 to 8, in the Duma and now goes to the upper chamber, the Federation Council, where it also has strong support, according to Uzzell. Yeltsin has come out against similar proposals in the past, Uzzell said, but his decision this time is "up for grabs." Yeltsin has not spoken out publicly about the measure.

The 1993 Russian constitution guarantees that religions "shall be equal before the law." But according to critics, the new legislation would effectively create two classes of unequal religions. One would be the major "traditional" religions of Russia -- Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. But a second-class status would be created -- "religious groups," which would be allowed to meet privately if they register with local authorities.

To qualify, however, a religious group would have to show that is has been operating in Russia for 15 years -- a requirement that would exclude all but those that were in existence when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died, a time when the state was officially atheist and religious activists and dissidents were persecuted and imprisoned.

Many sects that have come to Russia since the Soviet collapse, including Roman Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists and other Protestant denominations, would not meet the new criteria as religious groups and may have to wait years to be officially registered, opponents of the legislation said.

"As a religious group, you can gather at someone's house and hold meetings, but it doesn't go much beyond that," said Diederick Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. "You can't have your own church, you can't own property, you can't establish your own religious educational institutions."

Uzzell said that under the legislation, those groups also would not be allowed to carry out charitable activities.