Features

The new collectives

International | In the provinces, Russian officials bully religious freedom and insist on state-sponsored worship

Issue: "Spring Draining," April 12, 1997

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.

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"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."

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