Excerpt from testimony before subcommittee for Europe of Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
U.S. Policy Toward Russia Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Sestanovich Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States May 20, 1998
3. Democracy, Human Rights and Religious Freedom
Religious freedom is a foundation stone of a free society and occupies an important place in the obligations that states assume as members in good standing of the international community. In October 1997, Russia enacted a restrictive and potentially discriminatory law on religion that includes troubling provisions establishing a hierarchy of religious communities and according preferential treatment to religions that have been present in Russia for an extended period of time. Some new religious organizations are required by the law to wait up to 15 years before acquiring basic legal rights.
This is a bad law. It was pushed through by those who do not share the principles of tolerance that are embodied in Russia's own constitution and its international commitments. Others in Russia, including millions of members of minority religious congregations, feel differently and value the freedoms that they have won during the past ten years.
Enactment of the law and growing discrimination against minority religions and foreign missionaries in Russia's regions have been the subject of great concern. The President, Vice President, Secretary Albright, Ambassador Collins and I have been active during the past year engaging with Russia to ensure that it upholds its commitments to protect religious freedom.
In seeking full Russian respect for its international obligations, we have been immeasurably helped by others who have articulated America's commitment to religion freedom. I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and Senator Hatch and Senator Bennett for traveling to Russia to discuss church-state relations with Russian authorities and to underscore U.S. concerns about the new law. Non-governmental organizations, such as Law and Liberty Trust, the Union of Councils, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the U.S. Catholic Conference, as well as church groups, have been actively and effectively engaged, as well.
Let me mention some of what has been accomplished.
-- Russian government officials, including President Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, pledged to the Vice President that the new law would not result in any erosion of religious freedom in Russia.
-- In applying the law, the Russian Ministry of Justice has adopted a permissive approach to registering religious organizations with full legal rights, effectively bypassing elements of the 15-year rule. Last Thursday, the Ministry registered the Mormon church with full legal rights.
-- Presidential Administration officials have established two consultative mechanisms to engage with religious communities and to monitor application of the new law.
-- The Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice have also promised to support efforts now underway by non-governmental organizations to challenge the constitutionality of the law's retroactive provisions before the constitutional court.
The implementation of this law has provided encouraging evidence of the federal government's determination to respect its international obligations and to make sure that law enforcement conforms to constitutional standards. We are disappointed that the implementing regulations failed to clarify the law's ambiguities. Since enactment of the law, 25 cases of harassment by local officials have come to our attention. We and Ambassador Collins in Moscow have vigorously complained about these incidents. The federal government needs to be more active in reversing discriminatory actions taken at the local level and, when necessary, reprimanding the officials at fault. The State Department will continue to monitor this issue closely.
As required by the FY-98 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, the President will provide to Congress his conclusions about religious freedom in Russia during the coming days.