Criticism of Religion Bill: Pot Calling Kettle Black?

By Julia Shargorodska, STAFF WRITER

Russia's controversial bill on religion, vetoed by President Boris Yeltsin last week, would have restricted the activities of non-traditional faiths and foreign missionaries, drew criticism from human rights groups, the Vatican and the U.S. Senate.

But lost amid the criticism of the bill was the fact that several other countries - including members of NATO and the European Union - restrict religious practices in ways that are similar to the provisions in the Russian bill.

Yeltsin vetoed the bill the same day the U.S. State Department issued a report on religious intolerance in 79 countries, focusing on Christians in particular. Countries cited for religious repression included China, Israel, Ukraine, Greece and Germany.

The U.S. Senate had pressed Yeltsin to veto the legislation by voting overwhelmingly to cut $200 million in aid to Russia if it became law. Pope John Paul II also stated his opposition to the bill in a letter to Yeltsin on June 24.

The Russian law would have denied full legal rights to groups that have been in Russia for less than 15 years. That would have included many groups such as Seventh-Day Adventists, evangelical Protestants and Mormons, who gained a foothold in Russia after the collapse of communism.

John Easton, press secretary for Senator Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican and one of the sponsors of the U.S. Senate bill, said the bill in Russia was an isolated situation that required quick action.

"This was a specific action taken toward a bill that was moving through Russia's political system. The bill had a short time limit and it was on Yeltsin's desk. The Senate took quick action to help religious freedoms in Russia," he said.

"America saw a very retrograde step was about to be taken, and it took a step to halt it," said Michael Bourdeaux, director of the Keston Institute in Oxford, England, which monitors religious freedom.

Yet Russia, as Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia pointed out during the debate, would not be alone in restricting religious activity. In Israel, which receives extensive U.S. aid, pending legislation would prohibit the production, import or dissemination of religious materials "in which there is an inducement to religious conversion."

The bill would also permit confiscation of such materials and a one-year prison sentence. Local civil rights activists and legal scholars say that its language could theoretically prohibit even the ownership of the New Testament, the report states.

The constitution in Greece, a member of NATO, enshrines the Greek Orthodox Church as a state church and prohibits proselytizing by outsiders. Furthermore, non-Orthodox religious groups must be recognized as a "known religion" before they can obtain a permit to hold services. The status is difficult to obtain, however.

In Ukraine, 1993 legislation "restricts the activities of non-native religious organizations," the report says. Although there is no official state religion, foreign religious organizations may work "only in those religious organizations that invited them to Ukraine and with official approval of the governmental body that registered ... the pertinent religious organization."

In Germany, the state grants special legal status to Catholic and Lutheran churches as well as to the Jewish community. A court in Berlin recently denied Jehovah's Witnesses the status of a "public body" and Scientologists, including American citizens, have reported discrimination and harassment.

One church led by an American pastor there reported that it had been subjected to vandalism, threats of violence and scrutiny by official "sect observers" who are supposed to educate the public and other officials about how to recognize members of sects.

Even if Russia were to adopt the religion law, restrictions would not come close to those in China, where the government restricts religious practice to state-sponsored church organizations and registered places of worship. Many religious groups have not registered because they fear a crackdown by the government. Indeed, the government has cracked down on several hundred unregistered Catholic and Protestant movements in 1996-1997. Many Christians are imprisoned, detained or their whereabouts are not known, according to the State Department report.


MOSCOW, AUGUST 12 (from RIA Novosti's Anatoli Mikhailov) -

"Empty talk," says Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, as he shrugs off public alarm, especially Western, over a harsh and constitutionally non-compliant bill, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations".

Moscow Patriarchate official in charge of external church relations, the hierarch addressed a news conference on church information policies today. The bill cannot hurt, let alone insult any sane person, he insisted. It was passed by the State Duma and received the approval of His Beatitude Patriarch Alexis II. The federal President, however, vetoed it on allegations of constitutional non-compliance.

True, the Constitution stipulates universal freedom of conscience. But then, aliens, insofar as they are granted rights equal to nationals', are supposed to be equally restricted by the Russian legislation, which, without clashing with constitutional premises, limits their social, political, economic and religious activities in the fields where the government deems such restrictions necessary, argued the Metropolitan. The Russian Orthodox Church firmly insists on these restrictions, necessitated by Aum Shinryi Kyo's gas attack in the Tokyo metro, the White Fraternity's hysterical rites, and the "fiendish fanaticism" of many sinister cults, said Cyril.

Young religious communities will not enjoy the status of juridical persons for fifteen years since their establishment, according to the bill, which robs them of property and legal defence rights. In this context, Metropolitan Cyril assured Roman Catholics and Protestants, in particular, Baptists, that their denominations have long established themselves in Russia and so will not be subject to creed and activity inspections.