By KHIRSTIN WHITE
The Russian Orthodox Church is a signature away from becoming the nationally recognized church of Russia.
The bill, proposed to limit the infiltration of churches into the country, passed the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament Wednesday and now awaits ratification by President Boris Yeltsin.
The bill counter-acts the 1990 Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations law which gave liberty and equality to all religions in the country.
The missionary program for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has flourished the past seven years in Russia. The bill poses a threat to future missionary work and may even lead to a complete withdraw of missionaries in Russia.
According to the Associated Press, the bill states that religious groups must be present in Russia for 15 years before they can publish or distribute religious literature, or invite foreigners for preaching activities. The LDS church falls short of the 15 year requirement.
Professor Gary Browning, the first Mission President in Moscow, was in Russia 1990-1993. “When I was in there it was an era of very great religious freedom. The people had every opportunity to accept a broad variety of religions. It was a wonderful period. The people were open, curious and inquisitive.”
This inquisitiveness came as a threat to the Russian government that is composed of many Russian Orthodox church members. They have felt the loss in membership and finances as contributions to the church have declined.
“The Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg initially wanted to help build up all christian churches but baptisms into the other churches led to loss of money for the Orthodox Church and ultimately they experienced a financial breakdown. Now they have turned on other christian churches. People are no longer paying the donations to their church. They don’t buy Russian Orthodox Church literature and they don’t pay to go to church,” said Yuri Hovanski, a BYU student who served his mission in Russia.
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, was in Russia two weeks ago at the request of the State Department to meet with Russia’s parliament and Yeltsin’s administration. His representation as a recognized Latter-day Saint and United States official generated positive feedback on the implications for the LDS church.
“I did not identify myself as speaking on behalf of the Mormon Church in these meetings. I was there officially as a representative of the U.S. Congress, specifically the Appropriations Committee. But whenever they wanted examples of how the proposed law would be damaging to a western religion I gave them examples from my own experiences in the Church. Virtually in every interview the fact that I am a Mormon came up. I was pleased that the reaction in every instance was very positive. They had a good view of the Mormons, had nothing but good things to say about the Mormons. They kept assuring me that Mormons have ‘nothing to worry about under our legislation,'” he said to the LDS Church News.
The Russian government has emphasized that the intent of the legislation is not to restrict the activities of the LDS Church. Sen. Bennett said the Russians are convinced they have taken care of the concern that he had and they must sit back and wait to see how they actually implement the law.
The LDS Church is battling the stigma that other radical sects have set.
“If we can persuade the Russian government that we are not like the others who have sought members through coercion and set a pattern of extorting money from those members we will be making the distinction between us and the others,” said Professor Thomas Roger, the 1993-1996 St. Petersburg mission president.
“I am sure Sen. Bennett has done everything he can. We need to remind the Russian government who we are. That we are not to be considered as any cult or sect,” said Roger. “No matter what the restrictions are, I am confident there is enough strength in the local leadership of the (LDS) church to hold up.
“If the Russian government follows the proposed law to the letter the LDS church members will inevitably have to rely on themselves to keep the church strong. The members have firm testimonies and have embraced the gospel wholeheartedly. The gospel is certain to continue to grow even in the event that the missionary effort should halt.”