Foreign faiths stay in Russia



    Religious leaders are closely observing the political dance between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his parliament.

    On July 22, Yeltsin vetoed a bill which would give the Russian government more power to regulate religious activities.

    Yeltsin said this was a “difficult decision to make,” according to the Interfax news agency. Interfax reported Yeltsin proposed some changes in the bill to reach a compromise with parliament, and supports the idea of laws needed to protect public health and morals from “radical sects.”

    The same day Yeltsin vetoed the bill, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs released a statement describing the bill.

    One paragraph in the description reads, “Most notably, the Duma and Federation Council recently passed legislation which, if enacted, would replace the 1990 law and would introduce significantly more government regulation over religious organizations.”

    The statement went on to say the law is not directed against Russia’s established major faiths (Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism).

    However, the statement adds, “It would impose registration requirements on religious groups, provide significant official discretion in decisions on registration, and would restrict the activities of foreign missionaries, as well as confessions, sects or religions that are relatively new to Russia or that have relatively small numbers of adherents.”

    CNN News reported, “Among the denominations that would have been affected by the bill were evangelical Christians, Mormons and Roman Catholics.” If this bill were enforced, such groups would have two avenues for gaining official recognition.

    The first option would be to show they had officially existed in Russia for at least 15 years.

    During a congressional session, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said of this option, “This means that the religions would have had to register under Communist dictator Leonid Breshnev, at a time when the Soviet Union was officially atheistic and officially repressive to the pursuit of faith.”

    A religious group’s second option would be to wait 15 years before they could obtain full legal status.

    Only after obtaining full legal status could a religious group own property, have a bank account, worship publicly, print literature or open schools.

    “The bill was enormously popular with the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which resents an influx into Russia of what it considers ‘foreign’ religions, and in the Russian parliament, where both houses approved it by overwhelming margins,” according to CNN.

    Groups protesting the bill included the U.S. Senate, the Vatican and other religious organizations, and many human rights groups.

    Senator Richard Lugar, R-Ind., sent a letter, signed by 160 members of Congress, to Yeltsin urging him to veto the bill.

    On July 16, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment on a foreign aid bill to cut off all aid to Russia if Yeltsin signed the bill into law. The New York Times reported, “Even Russians who opposed the bill expressed deep anger over what they see as U.S. meddling in Russian domestic policy.”

    U.S. government officials and media were pleased with Yeltsin for his courage to veto.

    President Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel Berger, praised Yeltsin for his action, according to the Washington Post.

    In an interview with the Post, Berger said, “There was a lot of pressure on this one, and it is an act of courage.”

    The Russian Orthodox Church has generally supported Yeltsin, but reports it is disappointed in his decision to veto the bill. The Associated Press reported, “During last year’s hard-fought presidential campaign, Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, made a point of reminding believers of Soviet-era repressions urging them to ‘make the right choice’ between Yeltsin and his communist opponent.”

    The AP said the Orthodox Church has 80 million followers — more than half of Russia’s population.

    Stan Taylor is a BYU political science professor who specializes in international politics. He said these events don’t worry him.

    Taylor said even if the bill became law, the law would have to be enforced by Yeltsin, the executive leader. He said, “In the United States, the executive government could be sued for not enforcing passed laws — in Russia the process is not as well developed.”

    John Young, a specialist in Russian politics, temporarily left his professorship at the University of North British Columbia to teach at BYU this semester. He shares Taylor’s attitude.

    He said, “This bill got through right at the end of this (Russian legislative) session. My feeling is that most people didn’t pay much attention to it.”

    Young said although Yeltsin’s veto could be overridden, his veto will make more legislators pay attention to what the bill will actually do.

    Young didn’t expect Yeltsin to veto the bill. He thought Yeltsin would let the courts declare it unconstitutional because his veto will cause him some political backlash.

    He said Yeltsin could even dissolve parliament if he wanted.

    Young also said even if the bill passes, “nothing will happen for at least two years — hundreds of laws on the books are not being enforced.”

    Young believes this controversy over religious freedom in Russia has a legitimate cultural issue. He said, “This law was sold as something to protect the Russian culture.”

    He added the power and resources of western religions give the Russians concern. He said some westerners are perceived, and legitimately so, as having the ability to “buy” converts.

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