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Russia: Analysis from Washington--A Catholic Compromise On Russian Religious Legislation

Washington, 10 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Roman Catholic Church has agreed to support a modified version of the Russian law on religious organizations passed by the Duma in July but vetoed by President Boris Yeltsin.

Church leaders told the respected Keston news service on Monday that they had agreed to support what they concede remains a "bad law" on church-state relations after Yeltsin administration officials assured them in private that the authorities would not use the law to create "problems" for Roman Catholics.

The Roman Catholics thus become the first opponents of the July bill to come out in support of the new compromise language. And their shift of position is likely to have three major consequences:

First, it virtually guarantees that there will be no repetition of Western private and governmental protests that led Yeltsin to veto the first version of this law.

Various human rights organizations, government agencies, and the U.S. Senate complained at the time that the original draft would virtually end religious freedom in Russia.

Second, this shift thus makes it virtually certain that the Russian parliament will pass and Yeltsin will sign the new legislation despite the fact that it continues to contain severe restrictions not only on other faiths but potentially on the Roman Catholics themselves.

And third, it opens the way for a rapprochement between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Never easy in the past, relations between the two worsened in the run-up to the parliamentary debates on the draft law, leading Orthodox Patriarch Aleksiy II to cancel a long-planned summit meeting with Pope John Paul II.

What makes this shift so surprising is that the Roman Catholics themselves acknowledged that they had won few concrete improvements in the bill and that they had not received any written guarantees that the Russian authorities would keep their promises.

The papal nuncio in Moscow, Reverend Victor Bartsevich said that Yeltsin's people had told him that the Russian government would not use the law against Roman Catholics or for Lutherans. But in an interview with Keston, Bartsevich acknowledged that Russian officials had not been willing to give similar assurances about how they would handle denominations such as the Baptists and Pentecostals.

And he admitted that the letter of the draft law could allow the Russian government to move against Roman Catholics as well, if the authorities decided to ignore their unwritten promises not to enforce them.

Why then did the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Russia agree to support the latest variant of this legislation?

In addition to promoting interfaith contacts, the nuncio suggested several reasons. Bartsevich said he felt he and his fellow Catholic churchmen had achieved a great deal by forcing the Russian government to change the preamble to the draft law, even though the preamble has no direct legal force.

The preamble of the first version listed Orthodoxy as one of the faiths "respected" by the Russian state. The latest draft simply lists Christianity in general as falling into that category.

The nuncio said that this change "was exclusively the result of our efforts."

Moreover, Bartsevich continued, the Russian government had agreed to several other textual concessions which he said would give Russian citizens greater rights to practice their religion, although he acknowledged that these changes might not matter.

"We know the new law won't be observed in practice anyway," Bartsevich said and noted that the Russian government had often ignored the provisions of the 1990 legislation that established freedom of religion in the Russian Federation. And he added that his church was especially concerned to gain some leverage in Moscow given the rising tide of increasingly restrictive regional legislation.

Further, he acknowledged that the Russian state had simply worn down most of the religious organizations in the country. "Maybe they had all been tormented beyond endurance, maybe they felt they were in a dead-end situation," Bartsevich conceded.

And he added that "there was a general feeling that we couldn't do anything further to improve the bill."

But the Kremlin's success in wearing down the religious inside Russia will be even greater if the decision of the Roman Catholic Church there to change sides leads as appears likely to passive Western acceptance of a Russian law that will seriously circumscribe the freedom of religion in the Russian Federation.