In a victory for religious freedom that is becoming rarer across the former Soviet Union, a St. Petersburg official last week vetoed a proposed law that would have imposed stringent new licensing requirements on religious organizations.
The bill, passed in February, would have made the existence of all religious organizations dependent upon a city license and would have classified nearly all church and para-church activities as "missionary activities" subject to state regulation. The action taken by the city council of Russia's most Westernized city is similar to anti-missionary laws being passed in other parts of the country. These violate both Russia's 1990 law on freedom of conscience and its 1993 constitution. They represent a trend by local authorities to overrule democratic gains begun in Moscow since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
City governor V.A. Yakovlev vetoed the St. Petersburg legislation after taking nearly a month to decide whether he would sign it into law. He called the licensing requirements "unacceptable" in a four-page veto message to city residents. Had it become law, the legislation would have required those involved in all religious activities--only private prayer was exempted--to obtain from government authorities "a diploma or other document giving him the right to carry out missionary activities." It was considered milder than other regional statutes, which target foreign clergy and "non-traditional" religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses for sanction. But the blurring of distinctions among clergy and denominations is significant, observers say.
"These laws are being enacted under the pretext of a crackdown on foreigners," said Larry Uzzell, "but it also means that the evangelical Russian has less religious freedom than he did two or three years ago."
Mr. Uzzell reports on religious freedom for the Keston Institute. Formerly known as Keston College, the Oxford-based organization was considered the leading authority on religious freedom under communism in the Soviet Union. After a brief respite of democratic reforms in Russia, Keston once again finds its watchdog services in demand. In a February letter to the organization, one Russian church official wrote that "the situation has become so much worse that only Keston can help us now as it did 20 years ago."
Russia's 1993 constitution guarantees religious freedom and promises all reli-gions equal protection under the law. Smaller local governments, however, have enacted local regulations to restrict religious practices, mostly for non-Russian Orthodox minorities they deem a threat to their political base. "In religious freedom as in many other areas of life, Russia is to a large extent a lawless state," Mr. Uzzell told the U.S. Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He said one-fourth of Russia's provincial governments have adopted laws regulating religious activities in violation of their constitution and the Helsinki Accords, which set international parameters for human rights.
Laws like St. Petersburg's are set up to revoke a church's or ministry's accreditation if it ignites religious dissent, according to Mr. Uzzell. "This could easily include a sermmn disagreeing with Russian Orthodox teachings about icons, or a lecture setting forth the Western position on the schism between the papacy and the Orthodox church. Baptists or Roman Catholics thus have no guarantee that they are free to preach the core doctrinal beliefs of their own religions," he said.
While degrees of repression are different across Russia, Mr. Uzzell said the United States should have a singular response. "U.S. leaders should be making it clear that Russia's relationship with the West will not proceed if it doesn't change," he said. His comments, as well as testimony before the congressional commission, stand in contrast to most post-Cold War foreign policy formulations that ignore religious freedom, including those from conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. Its recent report, "A New Paradigm for U.S-Russia Relations," runs to 22 pages with no mention of religious freedom as a benchmark.
Clearly, national trends such as economic instability and Mr. Yeltsin's fragile hold on power put religious groups on shaky ground, but the fallout takes varied forms:
**red_square**Regional government officials in Tula told Seventh Day Adventist pastor Pavel Zubkov that he could not rent an auditorium unless he first received consent from the local Russian Orthodox priest.
**red_square**Local officials in Udmurt approved a law requiring anyone engaged in "missionary activity" to file detailed reports about their beliefs and activities and pay fees for a one-year "accreditation" to practice their beliefs. Missionary activity under the Udmurt law is defined as "the dissemination of religious doctrine among other-believing or non-believing citizens with the goal of drawing them into religious formations." The activities cited are "preaching, propaganda and educational work, the organization of collective worship services, religious rituals and ceremonies, individual work, and other forms of activity."
**red_square**Officials in Sverdlovsk authorized a Council for Religious Affairs to evaluate a church's doctrine and "the social-psychological consequences" of its activities. But in an example of what Mr. Uzzell calls "the quasi-anarchic volatility of church-state relations in today's Russia," Sverdlovsk officials are refusing to enforce this law, one of the strictist provincial laws against religious freedom.
In Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, local officials even turned away Protestant groups seeking to register and pay the fees required by the four-month-old law. Apparently recognizing that the law is unconstitutional, local officials said they feared being sued by minority religious leaders who faced stiff reporting and registration requirements under it, and that they found its provisions vague and incomprehensible. Minority religious groups in Sverdlovsk have other difficulties, unrelated to the law, when faced with Soviet-like bureaucratic hurdles to importing humanitarian aid and renting public halls for worship.
**red_square**Members of the True Orthodox Church continue to be targeted by government officials for harassment. The True Orthodox Church, also known as the Catacomb Orthodox Church, is an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church formed in 1927 in protest of the larger Orthodox church's close ties with the Soviet government.
In January two of its leaders, Bishops Yevragi and Geronti, were killed; church officials claim they were murdered by government agents. Bishop Amvrosi von Sievers alleges the motive for the killings was the clerics' knowledge of cooperation between the KGB and the Orthodox Patriarchate. Mr. von Sievers says that he has been followed and has received threatening telephone calls. On Feb. 27, returning by train to Moscow from St. Petersburg, he says he was taken from his sleeper at 3 a.m. by two men, beaten up, and told to end his "anti-state activity."
**red_square**In Kursk, 300 miles south of Moscow, city officials have forced the Roman Catholic parish to end its worship services in the historic Church of the Assumption. The church was built by Catholics during the time of the tsars but became a "house of culture" under communism. Worship services and part-time access to the church were revoked when city officials told priest Yosif Gunchaga they would not renew their agreement to share the facility. So far parishioners are able to meet for worship on the street in front of the church, even in sub-freezing weather.
**red_square**In Belgorod, city officials are withholding registration from the Catholic parish on the pretext that it is a "foreign" religious organization. There city officials have prohibited street gatherings outside the 19th-century Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Authorities say the church will be turned into a Russian Orthodox museum.