Washington, 16 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A measure intended to restrict the activities of foreign missionaries in Russia threatens to undermine religious freedom there, cloud the country's political climate, and even strain relations between Moscow and the West.
Last month, the Russian parliament voted overwhelmingly for a bill that defines the Orthodox Church as an "inalienable part" of Russian history and calls for "respect" toward Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions "traditionally" found in the country.
But the bill placed severe restrictions on all other religious groups. Under the bill's terms, the latter would have to work in Russia for 15 years before they could even register with the state, own property, set up bank accounts, or publish literature.
Yeltsin has not indicated whether he will sign the bill. But even if he does not, the communist and nationalist parties in the Russian Duma appear to have more than enough votes to override presidential opposition.
More important still, this measure enjoys broad support in Russia from both the Orthodox Church and ordinary Russians. Orthodox leaders have been especially vocal in opposing the activities of foreign missionaries.
Russian Patriarch Alexiy II has compared the work of foreign missionaries to "NATO's expansion to the East." And he recently canceled a meeting with Pope John Paul because the latter reportedly would not pledge to end missionary work in Russia.
Such views, albeit less clearly articulated, appear to be widespread among Russians who often tend to view the activities of any outside religious groups as a threat to their national identity and status.
Not surprisingly, religious activists in Russia and Western specialists on human rights have already denounced the measure in the harshest terms.
Vladimir Murza, a leading Evangelical Christian in Russia and a victim of Soviet anti-religious actions, said that the measure "has a discriminatory character and takes us back to the time of Brezhnev and Khrushchev."
And Lawrence Uzzell, a leading monitor of the status of religious freedom in Russia, said the parliament's bill was "unconstitutional because it denies equal status to different organizations."
More than that, Uzzell has demonstrated that the bill would discriminate against even such traditionally Russian religious groups as the Old Believers, a denomination that broke away from Russian Orthodoxy in the seventeenth century.
Consequently, Uzzell notes, the chief beneficiary of the parliament's action is likely to be the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But equally clearly, the chief victims will be religious freedom in Russia as a whole, the chances for Russia to become a more democratic society, and possibly Russia's relations with those Western governments concerned about human rights.
By in effect reestablishing the Russian Orthodox Church, the Duma's action will make it more difficult for that denomination to function as one religion among others and as a faith capable of sustaining criticism of the government. And that in turn may end up costing the Church its transcendent role even if it shores up the Orthodox hierarchy's secular power.
Even more, the willingness of the Russian parliament to undermine freedom of religion in response to popular passions strongly suggests that the Duma as currently composed might be willing to subvert other freedoms as well, a possibility that will disturb many in Russia and abroad.
Both possibilities have disturbed Western governments concerned about the development of human rights in post-Soviet Russia. Last week, for example, a group of American congressmen sent a letter to Yeltsin urging him to veto this bill.
One of its authors, Congressman Gary Ackerman, told journalists that the Russian bill "would create a chilling atmosphere and perhaps even reverse the tremendous steps towards democracy and freedom that Russia has taken over the past several years."
And he added that among the religious groups that would be "stripped of their legal status" by the Russian parliament's action were such mainstream faiths as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Adventists, the Salvation Army and "new denominations of Judaism."
Consequently, Ackerman warned, this measure if it becomes law "could certainly set a very bad precedent in U.S.-Russian relations."
For that reason if none other, a lot is riding on Yeltsin's decision and on his willingness to take on the communists and nationalists in his own legislature on a matter which enjoys broad support among his fellow Russians.