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Russia: Analysis From Washington--A Dangerous New Orthodoxy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, September 23 (RFE/RL) - New Russian legislation restricting missionary activity in particular and religious freedom in general could threaten Moscow's relations with the West and especially with the United States.

On Friday, the Russian Duma approved a revised law on religious organizations by a vote of 358 to 6. The bill now goes to the Federation Council which is expected to approve it and then to Russian President Boris Yeltsin who is expected to sign it.

Yeltsin's office drafted the revised bill after the Russian president vetoed the original measure in July, a step he took after protests by human rights groups and a threat by the U.S. Senate to block some 200 million dollars in aid if he did not.

But despite promises by Yeltsin and his spokesmen that they would eliminate the problems of the first draft, the new version of the law contains virtually all the provisions of the original as well as a number of new and even more restrictive ones.

Like the original bill, the new legislation divides denominations into two groups: those with 15 years of recognized operation that could function openly, and those without such standing that could not legally practice their religions, publish, or maintain a bank account.

Advocates of the law, including the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy, have suggested that such legislation is needed to protect historically Russian faiths from the impact of missionaries for other religious groups who have entered Russia since the fall of communism.

And they argue that the law protects not only Russian Orthodoxy but also Roman Catholicism, the Baptist church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

But in fact, these claims are not justified by the text of the law. While this legislation might protect congregations and hierarchies already registered with state, it would do little to protect congregations within these faiths not registered in the past.

Thus, for example, the many Jewish synagogues that have arisen since the end of Soviet power might not be protected by the law, and the large number of Roman Catholic congregations active underground even before 1991 might not have the right to continue to exist.

And this new legislation, which its advocates say is designed to keep out "dangerous" sects, would make it extremely difficult for groups not registered with the Soviet state in the past or with the Russian state now to ever survive long enough to gain the protections of the first.

Because of these restrictive arrangements, both human rights activists and Western governments have already indicated their dismay.

For example, Lawrence Uzzell, the Moscow representative of Britain's Keston Institute, a group that monitors religious life in Russia, said the new measure is "not a law that protects tradition but a law that protects Stalinism, as it protects only those religious bodies that were most loyal to the Soviet state."

As such, he said, the measure is "manifestly unconstitutional," even if it enjoys widespread support in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, the Russian state, and Russian public opinion.

A spokesman for U.S. President Bill Clinton said that the American leader had expressed his concerns about the law during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov in New York on Monday.

And the spokesman indicated that Vice President Al Gore will raise the issue during his meetings in Moscow this week with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

But despite these and other expressions of Western concern -- and possibly even because of them -- Yeltsin seems unlikely to veto the law this time around. Not only is he under pressure from the increasingly influential Russian Orthodox hierarchy, but he is confronted by an almost unanimous Duma and broad support for this measure among many ordinary Russians.

Yeltsin is thus likely to sign this law, even as his spokesmen attempt to play down its significance.

But both he and Russia more generally are likely to learn quickly that Americans and others who may not always understand all the intricacies of other human rights issues will immediately recognize violations of religious liberty.

And their attitudes are likely to affect the way in which their governments deal with a Russian government apparently committed to a new and not very free orthodoxy on religious questions.
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