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Russia: Patriarch Warns Of Discord Unless Religion Bill Enacted

Moscow, 24 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II, warned today that a final rejection of a religious bill might lead to social discord. In a statement, Alexy said that unless the law is eventually approved by President Boris Yeltsin, tensions may arise between the authorities and the majority of Russians.

He said the tensions could seriously complicate society's movement toward peace and concord.

Yeltsin earlier this week vetoed a bill passed by both houses of Russia's legislature which would have established Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism as traditional religions. Other faiths might have to wait 15 years to win official status.

Yeltsin sent proposed changes to the legislature, saying that the original version would have violated human and constitutional rights and would have favored certain religious denominations. He said it also would have contravened Russia's international commitments.

Yeltsin's veto won both criticism and praise at home yesterday.

Interfax quoted Viktor Zorkaltsev, Communist Party chairman of the Duma (lower Parliamentary house) committee on religious associations as saying "Russia has been trampled on."

But liberals praised Yeltsin's veto. Ella Pamfilova, an independent deputy in the Duma, told Interfax the bill must not be allowed to infringe on human rights.

The bill was criticized as discriminatory by Russian human rights activists, the Pope and the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. yesterday welcomed Yeltsin's decision to veto the law, which Washington says imposes severe restrictions on minority religions in Russia.

In a brief statement, the State Department said the U.S. was pleased with Yeltsin's move and his continuing support for freedom of religion.

The co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-New York), said Yeltsin took an especially courageous stand, since the law had passed both houses of parliament and enjoyed strong popular support. D'Amato said Yeltsin deserves credit for consistently standing up for religious freedom.