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Russia: West Urged To Support Freedom Of Religion

Washington, 16 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - A London-based religious analyst says Western countries should press the Russian government to liberalize freedom of religion in the country.

Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, says the United States and other Western countries should make it clear Russia will not be allowed to integrate into the free world if it continues to violate its constitution regarding religious freedoms.

Uzzell told the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Washington Tuesday that Russians have less religious freedoms now than they had three years ago and the situation in likely to get worse this year.

The Keston Institute is a London-based organization which monitors religious life and freedoms in communist, and formerly-communist countries.

Uzzell put the blame on provincial governors in Russia who, he says, continue to enact authoritarian legislation which is based on the premise that teaching one's religious beliefs depends on permission from the government.

He cites the Sverdlovsk region in the Ural mountains where an "expert-consultative council" on religious affairs was appointed. He says the province's new law explicitly authorizes the council to assess a church's doctrinal beliefs and to evaluate the "social-psychological consequences" of its activities. If the conclusions of the council are negative, the church is not allowed to operate within the province, Uzzell says.

He says such legislation is clearly in violation of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

But he adds the administration of President Boris Yeltsin has failed to punish a single provincial official who enacted such legislation. The Russian Constitutional Court has also avoided dealing with the issue.

Uzzell cites other examples of similar violations of the constitution. He says a new law in the province of Udmurtia, about 600 kilometers east of Moscow, requires missionaries to get special accreditation from the provincial government. But, he adds, the law defines the term "missionary" so broadly that it includes domestic clergy, including rank-and-file believers.

"Udmurtia is thus claiming the power to require almost anyone who takes his religion seriously to file detailed reports about his activities and to pay fees to receive accreditation, so that he can practice what is supposed to be a basic constitutional right," he says.

Some advocates of such legislation say it is needed to keep out religious sects and cults, such as the Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, cult in Japan which was responsible for a nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000.

But Uzzell warns that it is "extremely dangerous" to write into law what is a sect and what is a religion. He says if genuine religious freedom is allowed, "those things will sort themselves out."

Uzzell was also critical of the Russian and provincial governments for favoring Russian Orthodoxism. He said in Sverdlovsk, which imposes detailed requirements on missionary activities, the Russian Orthodox Church and five other specifically-named confessions are exempt from the legislation. He says the exemption does not apply to Baptists or Pentecostals, even though they've had millions of followers in the Soviet Union, even before the collapse of communism.

Some members of the Russian Orthodox Church believe the state should be supportive of the religion because it has a 1,000 year tradition in the country.

Uzzell was accused by some in audience of attempts to export to Russia the American ideal of separation between the church and the state.

Uzzell replied he did not think the American model should be exported, but he also did not think it was good for the Orthodox Church to be a state religion.

He said by depending on state favoritism, the church loses its independence. Uzzell said that was evident when former Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev openly said the Orthodox Church supported Russia's military operation in Chechnya. "No one (from the church) protested because they wanted to maintain their favoritism."

Uzzell says he is not optimistic that the situation in Russia will change. He says he expects the Duma to pass new legislation soon further restricting the freedom of religion. He adds such legislation is likely to pass the Federation Council and be approved by Yeltsin.

Still, he says even in the worst-case scenario, Russia will not be like China, where people who worship face arrests.

But he says that did not mean the west should tolerate the Russian restrictions and urged members of the U.S. Congress to write letters of protests to Russian legislators.

Uzzell also said the U.S. government should elevate the issue "as one that matters," in bilateral discussions with Russian officials.