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Russia: Ministry Criticizes U.S. Decision To Tie Aid To Religion Bill

Moscow, 18 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Russian Foreign Minstry today criticized a recent U.S. Senate decision to reduce financial assistance to Moscow if a controversial religion bill becomes law. The U.S. Senate earlier this week adopted an amendment to a foreign assistance bill that would cut off some $200 million in aid if Russian President Boris Yeltsin signs the bill into law. The bill curbs the rights of religious groups by giving "traditional religions" special legal status.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in an official statement cited by Itar-tass that any attempts to impose conditions will be "counter-productive." The Ministry said it is in the interests of both the United States and Russia to build their relations on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

The proposed bill lists traditional faiths as Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. New religious organizations will have to wait fifteen years after registering before being officially established and acquiring property rights.

The bill has already been approved by the State Duma and the Federation Council. Russian human rights activists have condemned it as discriminatory but the Russian Orthodox Church has welcomed it.

Yesterday Pope John Paul II sent a letter to Yeltsin asking him to veto the bill and saying it would threaten the very survival of Catholicism in Russia. Russian Patriarch Alexy II and other senior Russian Orthodox Church officials, however, countered by calling on Yeltsin to sign the bill saying that failure to do so would destabilize the country.