by Geoffrey York
The Globe and Mail (Canada), June 24, 1997
Moscow Bureau

The Russian Duma has given final approval to a controversial bill to restrict the rights of "non-traditional" religions, including Baptists and other Protestant sects. The Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, approved the religious limits by an overwhelming 300-8 vote yesterday. The bill is expected to gain speedy approval from parliament's upper house, leaving it to President Boris Yeltsin to accept or veto.

The bill was promoted heavily by the Russian Communists, who have abandoned the atheism that marked their ideology in the Soviet era. Most of the Communists now are hard-line nationalists and close allies of the Russian Orthodox Church, the chief beneficiary of the religious= restrictions.

If the bill becomes law, religions will be unable to gain full legal status in Russia unless they have been registered for more than 15 years. This would impose severe limits on the Protestant sects that have proliferated in Russia since the political reforms of the 1980s. It also would give priority to religions such as the Orthodox church, which chose to co-operate with the Soviet regime. Other churches, which refused to register themselves under the Soviet rules, would be given an inferior legal status. Foreign missionaries and religious organizations would be barred from Russia unless they were affiliated with a registered Russian organization.=

The bill, which would replace a liberal 1990 law on freedom of conscience, would create a system of state "experts" to review religions and decide whether they should be legally registered. Only four religious groups would be considered traditional Russian religions: Russian Orthodox, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Without full legal status, the "non-traditional" religions could be reduced to holding prayer meetings in private apartments. They would have no guaranteed right to lease buildings, own land, establish schools, maintain bank accounts or publish religious literature. They would be vulnerable to harassment from police and local authorities. "This would be the greatest legislative setback for human rights in Russia since the Soviet era," said Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative for the Keston Institute, which studies religious life in Russia and Eastern Europe.

It is difficult to predict whether Mr. Yeltsin will veto the bill, Mr. Uzzell said in an interview. "There's a danger that it could get through. There's a struggle going on, behind the scenes, in the presidential administration. There are some people on the presidential staff who want him to sign this bill." Many senior officials are supporting the religious restrictions as a way of "reaffirming Russia's national identity," Mr. Uzzell said. "The mood in Russia today is less pro-Western. The Orthodox Church has become a shorthand for the patriotic beliefs that tug at Russian heart-strings."

Russian human-rights activists said the legislation could force some Protestant sects to go underground. They described the bill as a blatant violation of Russia's constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. "This is interference by the state into the affairs of religious organizations," said Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a Pentecostal Christian who is president of Christian Legal Centre in Moscow. Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and former dissident who was jailed for five years by the Soviet authorities, said the bill is openly discriminatory. "It is effectively aimed at resurrecting Soviet religious policy," he told a Russian news agency.

Orthodox leaders, however, have lobbied hard for the religious restrictions. They have accused the Protestant sects of sending foreign missionaries to Russia to exploit its economic and spiritual crises, at a time when the Orthodox church is too weak to defend itself. Patriarch Alexy II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has repeatedly demanded a halt to "proselytizing" by Protestant and Catholic groups in Russia. He recently cancelled a long-delayed meeting with the Pope because the Vatican refused to promise that the Catholics would restrict their activities in Russia. The Patriarch, who has close political connections to the Kremlin and the Communists, has consistently refused to allow the Pope to visit Russia.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Orthodox church, said the church would suffer a "violation of its rights" if a smaller sect was given equal status to it. Under the current laws, he complained, it is easy for any organization to register itself as a religion, then engage in "destructive activities" such as "arms selling or drug trading."

Mr. Uzzell said the Orthodox church's fear of foreign missionaries is groundless. The Protestant groups and other sects are "past their peak," he said. "There was a boom in spirituality of all kinds in the early 1990s, but that has faded now." He said the religious limits in the new bill were drafted in secret and approved by a Duma committee without any serious opportunity for debate.