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Russia: Legislators May Correct Flaws In Law On Religion

Washington, 30 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of Russia's Presidential Commission on Human Rights says his country's current law on religious freedom signed by President Boris Yeltsin last September has flaws that may be rectified in the future.

Vladimir Kartashkin made the comment Thursday during a press conference at the Russian Embassy in Washington. Kartashkin is part of a Russian delegation of public and government officials that has been invited to America by the United States Information Agency for a week-long visit.

Kartashkin says the delegation began discussions about the new law with members of the U.S. Congress, State Department, and various human and civil rights organizations on Monday.

Kartashkin says he is well aware that the Russian law on religious freedom has generated a lot of concern in the U.S., and especially in the Congress where many members believe the law is highly discriminatory, especially against religious minorities.

In fact, last July, the U.S. Senate said it was outraged by the proposed legislation and voted to cut off aid to Russia if it were signed into law by Yeltsin. However, the first draft of the bill was vetoed by Yeltsin, but an altered version was finally passed by the Duma and signed by Yeltsin in September.

Kartashkin says members of the U.S. Congress and other officials have expressed the greatest concern over two parts of the law -- one which terminates the legal status of all religious organizations except for those which were officially registered with the Soviet government at least 15 years ago; and the other which is the establishment of a government commission to review doctrines and practices of groups applying for registration.

Kartashkin says the delegation has worked hard to explain Russia's reasons for enacting the law. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that there is a fundamental difference between the way Russians and Americans approach the issue of religion.

Russia is more like France, Austria and Germany in how it deals with religious matters, says Kartashkin. He adds that unlike the U.S., which strongly believes the state should not interfere with religious matters, Russia, along with many European countries, believes in careful state regulation and control of religious entities.

As a result, he says, the Russian government has a commission to determine which organizations should be granted the status of a religious group and thus be entitled to the many state benefits. He adds there is nothing ominous or repressive about having such a commission review a prospective religion's credentials.

However, Kartashkin says some religions like devil-worshipping or other types of "cults" are forbidden in Russia. The commission helps to weed these and other "pseudo-religions" from becoming legitimate, he says.

In regards to the regulation that requires a religion to have been registered for at least 15 years before it can become legal, Kartashkin says this is just a practicality.

He says that registration is required only to make a religious entity a legal body and entitle it to tax and other state benefits. But according to the Russian constitution, he says, every individual in Russia is free to practice their religious beliefs as long as it does not pose a threat to public safety or entail criminal activity. When asked whether religious organizations that were banned during the Soviet period of official state-sponsored atheism were eligible for registration even though they did not officially exist for a 15-year period, Kartashkin said yes.

He says that as long as the group can provide evidence of their existence during that time -- even a decree banning their existence -- their registration would be ensured.

Kartashkin says that it is the general opinion of the delegation that the current law has several major shortcomings, many of which, he says, may be addressed and corrected in the future. He declined to specify exactly which parts of the law the group considered flawed, except to say all of them considered the current legislation to be far too complicated for the ordinary person to comprehend.

In addition to Kartashkin, the delegation includes Andrei Loguinov, the Chief of the Department on Internal Policy of the President of the Russian Federation, and Vladimir Tomarovskiy, Head of the Department of Public and Religious Associations of the Russian Ministry of Justice.

Kartashkin says he assured members of the U.S. Congress and other officials that both the private and public sector in Russia would be watching the implementation of the religious law very carefully to determine what aspects would need to be changed or adjusted.

Kartashkin says Russia fully intends to meet its international obligations to human rights and other organizations to which it belongs. He added that no one on the delegation wanted to see anyone in Russia unfairly discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.