Washington, 17 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would cut off financial assistance to Russia if a restrictive religion bill is signed into law by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Ninety-five senators out of 100 Wednesday voted for the amendment to the U.S. Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for fiscal 1998, beginning on Oct. 1.
The legislation was introduced by Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), who said he believes the Russian bill "severely discriminates against religious minorities" and undermines religious freedom in Russia.
Smith said the amendment would cut off some $200 million in American aid to Russia, adding that it would be the "clearest and strongest message" the U.S. could send to Russia in objecting to the bill.
The amendment would also require the U.S. president to certify annually to the U.S. Congress that Russia has not enacted any legislation discriminating against religious minorities in order to release financial assistance.
It additionally states that Russia cannot violate international human rights agreements to which it is a signatory.
During the Senate debate, in an emotional plea for support, Smith said: "I realize, as do all senators, that Russia is a sovereign country. We cannot tell Russia what to do as a country. We can, however, elect not to send foreign aid to a country that would discriminate against religious beliefs in so fundamental a way."
Smith said that among other things, the Russian law would terminate the normal legal status of all religious organizations except for those which were officially registered with the Soviet government at least 15 years ago, at a time of official state-sponsored atheism.
Smith also said he is alarmed by the law's provision to set up a commission of state experts to review doctrines and practices of groups applying for registration.
Smith said: "I know some may argue ... that we should not take these kinds of actions, that we are trying to help Russia build democracy. We are and we want to do those things. But I would say to them that religious freedom is the cornerstone of democracy. Indeed, a democratic foundation without that cornerstone of religious freedom is a democratic foundation built on sand."
Smith was strongly supported by several other senators who also took the floor to express their concern about the Russian law.
Senator Tim Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) said the Russian bill was "irreconcilable" with the concepts of liberty and religious freedom.
He added: "This is potentially the greatest retreat on religious freedom and human rights since the fall of the Soviet Union and it is an ominous sign about the future of that republic. We must forcefully signal our grave concern."
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations, said he had long been an "enthusiastic supporter" of aid to Russia. But he added that after reviewing the Russian religious bill, he had developed serious concerns about the direction the country was taking. McConnell said: "We ought not to be giving assistance to a country that ... purports to be a democracy, but which seeks to grant religious favoritism to certain kinds of religions at the expense of the others."
The entire appropriations bill and its amendments was expected to be approved by the Senate Wednesday night. It will then go to the House of Representatives. Delegates of the two chambers will spend some time in conference to reconcile differences they may have over its provisions before the bill is sent to President Bill Clinton to be signed into law.