Clinton Continues Aid to Russia
UCSJ Questions President's Determination That Discriminatory Law On Religion Has Not Been Implemented
HRWF (29.05.98) - On May 26, 1998, President Clinton signed Presidential Determination No. 98-23, which declared that Russia has not actually implemented its discriminatory federal law regulating religion, thereby allowing Russia to continue to receive foreign aid from the United States. The President found that "Russia has applied the new Russian law on religion in a manner that is not in conflict with its international obligations on religious freedom," though he cautioned that "the issue requires close monitoring as the law can be interpreted and used to restrict the activities of religious minorities."
Yosef I. Abramowitz, President of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ), responded today to President Clinton's announcement:
"While we understand his rationale for continuing assistance to a former superpower that might otherwise plunge into greater political instability and economic chaos, we respectfully question the President's overly broad assessment of the implementation of the religion law and its effects on human rights in Russia. This law has already been applied in dozens of instances by regional and provincial Russian officials with the express purpose of restricting the activities of non-Russian Orthodox faiths and harassing their clergy and adherents." Abramowitz stated that UCSJ monitors antisemitic and human rights abuses throughout the former Soviet Union through its network of human rights bureaus, including the Russian-American Bureau on Human Rights in Moscow.
A few recent examples, out of dozens reported, make clear that this law, especially as implemented in the Russian provinces, conflicts with international standards for religious freedom:
- On March 23, 1998, provincial authorities in Khabarovsky krai revoked the visa of a Baptist missionary from Oregon. Pastor Dan Pollard, who had operated an independent congregation in the city of Vanino for five years, was notified that his accreditation as pastor was no longer valid under the terms of the religion law and could not be renewed. Pollard was told that a Russian citizen must lead the congregation, again in accordance with the religion law.
- On April 8, a Presbyterian church in Moscow was denied registration by the city's directorate of justice. Citing the religion law, the church was informed that it had lacked proof it had existed in the area over the last fifteen years. "Because of the absence of such a document," the order read, "the directorate of justice has decided to leave the application without review."
- On April 28, the New Life Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Barnaul was expelled from a movie theater that it had rented to conduct meetings. Though the group had met in the auditorium and not in a classroom, where most other groups convened, authorities cited interference with the conducting of these other groups' activities. The Christian group had obtained a five-year lease with the building in exchange for performing repairs on the premises; its deposit will not be refunded.
Moreover, contrary to what is commonly reported in media accounts of the religion law, Judaism is not protected from these discriminatory measures. This fallacy arose from Judaism's inclusion in the law's preamble as a "traditional religion," though the preamble carries no force of law. Only five synagogues in all of Russia are accorded protection as religious institutions because they were registered at least 15 years ago; all others are subject to the whims and prejudices of local officials. Any doubt that Jews would be affected by the religion law was removed on October 15, 1997, when a Reform synagogue in Bryansk was denied registration after city administrators refused to accept the congregation's documentation as proof it that had existed at least 15 years ago, during the anti-religious Soviet era.
According to UCSJ National Director Micah H. Naftalin, "The President is walking a thin line. Undoubtedly recognizing that this Soviet-style law was passed last September by a near-unanimous vote in the Communist/nationalist-dominated parliament, he has given President Yeltsin a pass for seemingly benign implementation at the federal level. But, as we have seen, the law also gives provincial authorities a hunting license to restrict the exercise of religious rights by non-Russian Orthodox confessions.
Source: Natalia Ablova, Director,
Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law,
40 Manas Avenue, Room 77,
Bishkek 720001, Kyrgyzstan
courtesy of Ray Prigodich