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Russian president signs law restricting foreign religions

September 26, 1997

MOSCOW (AP) _ Defying appeals from religious and secular leaders around the world, President Boris Yeltsin signed a bill Friday that makes Russian Orthodoxy his country’s pre-eminent faith and limits the practice of many others.

``With this law signed, you can’t really speak about Russia as a democratic country,″ said Vladimir Zinchenko, minister of Moscow’s Evangelical Christian Church. ``If there is no freedom of conscience, that means there is no democracy.″

Russia’s Orthodox Church and a broad spectrum of nationalists have fought hard to pass the law, arguing that the country is being flooded by alien religions _ everything from Japan’s Aum Shinri Kyo cult to the Roman Catholic Church.

``Today’s law is yet another step toward improving the legislative protection and defense of the rights of Russia’s religious citizens,″ Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The law’s preamble enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the country’s dominant religion, calling it an inalienable part of Russian history. It pledges ``respect″ for Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.

But the rest of the law imposes arduous registration requirements on so-called foreign religious groups, and prohibits them from many public activities until they have been present in the country for 15 years.

The law would sharply curb the activities of the many Protestant and Catholic groups that have become active in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Most did not have a presence before then, and most do not meet the 15-year requirement.

``This is the most sweeping legislative setback in human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union,″ said Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, an independent think tank that monitors religious freedom in Russia.

The Vatican issued a statement calling the law ``far from the spirit and letter″ of Russia’s agreements to respect freedom of conscience.

Yeltsin vetoed an earlier version of the bill in July in response to sharp criticism at home and abroad from the Vatican, the U.S. Congress, human rights groups and others. At the time, he said the bill would violate the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Congress threatened to cut off aid to Russia if the bill became law, and Vice President Al Gore raised the issue in talks with Yeltsin this week. Some Russian observers suggested that Washington’s lobbying may have backfired, forcing Yeltsin to sign the bill to avoid the appearance of caving in to the West.

As one of Russia’s few ties to its pre-Soviet past, the Orthodox Church has wielded enormous political power since the Soviet collapse.

Alexy was an early and open Yeltsin supporter, publicly blessing him before his first presidential campaign in 1990. Yeltsin has returned the recognition, frequently incorporating Alexy into Kremlin ceremonies and attending church services on major holidays.

Yeltsin’s veto of the earlier version marked his first public break with Alexy and drew tremendous public criticism, especially in Parliament, which is dominated by hard-liners.

The law takes effect as soon as it is published in the government’s official newspaper, possibly within the next few weeks.

Under the law, religious groups must register with local authorities and wait 15 years until they are considered ``legal.″ In the interim, they will be prohibited from publishing or distributing religious literature or holding worship services in most public places.

The registration rules are similar to those imposed in Soviet times, when many churches went underground rather than submit to state control.

The version of the law Yeltsin signed adds a provision that makes it easier for groups that did register in Soviet times to operate more freely.

If a group can demonstrate three of its congregations have been registered for 15 years, they can be granted ``national″ standing. That would give them the right to start new churches that can worship publicly without waiting 15 years.

Uzzell complained the new provision ``legitimizes the Soviet system of church-state relations.″

``This law is aimed at stifling all dissent,″ said Zinchenko, the evangelical minister. ``It establishes the Orthodox Church as the religion of choice _ the same position the Communist Party held in the past.″

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