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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A New Threat To Religious Minorities?

Washington, 9 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- New Russian government efforts to enlist the Orthodox Church in Moscow's fight against religious minorities -- who some Russian officials say threaten Russia -- could threaten religious liberty in that country.

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said in Volgograd on Friday that the Russian police and religious leaders should combine forces to oppose cults and sects which "aim to undermine statehood in Russia."

Rushailo's remarks represent the Russian government's clearest response so far to requests from the Russian Orthodox Church for a special relationship with the state and to the court-imposed limitations on government controls over religious groups.

Since the collapse of Soviet power, Russian Orthodox hierarchs have sought to enlist the government in opposing the missionary activities of various non-indigenous religious groups, denominations which the Orthodox often describe as "foreign."

Responding to this effort, the Russian government drafted and passed a law that not only underscored the special relationship between the state and Orthodoxy, but also set the stage for Russian government moves against religious competitors.

But last year, Russia's Constitutional Court struck down several provisions of that law, after a group of Jehovah's Witnesses argued that the law violated the principle of freedom of conscience as enshrined in the 1993 Russian Constitution.

Rushailo's proposed alliance between state and church thus appears to be an effort to circumvent this ruling. On the one hand, it could open the way for the state to use the church to fight some of its battles.

And on the other, this alliance may suggest to both Orthodox and others that at least some in the church are prepared to play the kind of intelligence and control function that some priests and hierarchs played during Soviet times.

The timing of Rushailo's suggestion makes it particularly likely that his remarks will be especially troubling both to followers of minority denominations and to those concerned about religious and human rights.

Last Tuesday, the U.S. State Department publicly condemned attacks on a Jewish school in Ryazan on September 17, and on assemblies of Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons in Volgograd -- the site of Rushailo's remarks -- on August 20.

The State Department called on the Russian authorities to "conduct full and thorough investigations on an urgent basis," and said that "those responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent under Russian law."

The U.S. statement provided details on all three attacks. In Ryazan, the statement said, a group of youths had broken into a Jewish Saturday school, shouted anti-Semitic slogans, and intimidated the local principal into denying the Jews further use of the school.

Local officials have told the media that they are investigating the case. But they have made no arrests, and at least one Ryazan official dismissed the event as simple hooliganism with no broader meaning.

In Volgograd, the State Department noted, other groups of extremists burst into the services of the two Christian denominations and beat worshipers, directly threatening several Mormon missionaries from the United States.

In addition, the statement pointed out, officials close to President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and regional officials whom the Kremlin actively supports have made openly anti-Semitic remarks.

Such actions and remarks, the State Department said, "undermine efforts to create a tolerant society under the rule of law." It added that "all Russian citizens must be afforded the greatest possible protection of their religious and hard-won democratic freedoms."

At least some Russians who view religious minorities as a threat may read Rushailo's words as Moscow's response to the U.S. on this point, and thus see his words as a kind of official blessing for attacks on religious minorities -- even if that was not his intention.

If that should happen, then the tragic events of Ryazan and Volgograd may very well be repeated elsewhere, a development that could threaten not only the followers of minority religions in Russia, but the very possibility of religious freedom in the country.