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Russia: Yeltsin Misses Deadline Under Pressure Over Religion Law

Moscow, July 22 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday failed to sign a controversial bill imposing restrictions on minority religions, passed by parliament earlier this month.

Any decision the Russian president makes will fail displease either the supporters or the opponents of the bill. They have exchanged a fierce war of words during the last few days, aiming at influencing Yeltsin's decision.

Both houses of the Russian parliament approved the measure earlier this month. The Russian Constitution gives Yeltsin two weeks either to sign it into law or veto it.

A presidential veto could be overruled by a two-thirds majority in each house of parliament. This probably could be achieved, since the bill had the strong approval from communists and nationalist dominating the Russian parliament. But this could prove unnecessary. The Constitutional Court has ruled that if the president does not act on a law within 14 days of when it is approved by parliament, he has no choice but to approve it.

The bill declares Orthodox Christianity "an inalienable part of all-Russian history" while Islam, Judaism and Buddhism -- that have long-established roots among Russia's ethnic minorities -- are recognized as "traditional religions" to be accorded state recognition. All other religions will have to prove that they have been established in Russia for at least 15 years, if they want to be registered. Foreign religious activists will only be able to work in Russia if invited by one of the registered religious bodies.

The authors of the bill have said that it was prompted by the need to defend the traditional confessions, undermined by decades of atheistic communist rule, against aggressive sects operating from abroad.

A statement by the leadership of the Orthodox Church has asked Yeltsin to approve the bill, saying that Yeltsin's rejection would "lead to further spiritual de stabilization in Russia."

Giving the issue a political proportion, Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II said at the week-end that he views the recent growth of foreign cults in Russia as Western invasion. He was quoted by NTV commercial television as saying that this is "a form of expansion, comparable to NATO expansion to the East."

The Patriarch's view seem to coincide with the words of a prominent communist leader, Duma legislator Viktor Ilyukhin, who put it this way: "The West is using religion as a mean to influence the minds of Russian people, in fact as a mean to control the people."

The Catholic Church has denounced the bill. Pope John Paul II, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has said that, if approved into law, it would "constitute a real threat to the pastoral activities of the Catholic Church in Russia and to its very survival."

Vatican Ambassador to Moscow, John Bukowski, said Catholicism should be viewed as a traditional religion, since it has existed in Russia for the last 300 years.

Russian human right and minority cult groups say the bill violates the Russian Constitution by curbing human rights and introducing double standards. They have said they are ready to challenge it in the Constitutional Court.

The U.S. Senate last week voted overwhelmingly to cut about $200 million in U.S. aid if the bill becomes law.

Russian officials have defended the bill and have criticized strongly the Senate's decision to link U.S. aid. The chairman of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Vladimir Lukin, said that the United States is interfering in Russia's internal processes."

Russia's Foreign Ministry also rebuked the Senate, expressing surprised at the conditions set by the Senate's vote.

Yeltsin's representative at the Constitutional Court, Sergei Shakhrai, indicated yesterday that Western objections may play in the hands of the bill's supporters. Interfax quoted Shakhrai as saying that the best way to convince Yeltsin to sign a bill is to put outside pressure on him, particularly from abroad, and to threaten sanctions.

However, Government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov seemed to be less sure Yeltsin would sign. He told a news briefing in Moscow today that the issue concerns an extremely difficult and delicate issue. And he said Yeltsin will have to make a decision taking into account all internal, foreign, economic and social factors involved.