Russia's State Duma passed overwhelmingly in June a bill that threatens the activities of most Christian organizations and
churches established since the fall of communism.
The legislation, approved by a vote of 300-8 in the lower house of parliament, restricts the activities of foreign missionaries and all religious faiths except the "traditional" religions of Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. It explicitly repeals the glasnost-era law on freedom of conscience, which allowed religious freedom, and implicitly makes way to revive the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs.
The legislation grew out political maneuverings of a dominant Russian Orthodoxy afraid of being subsumed by foreign missionaries. Mikhail Men, a deputy in the State Duma and son of the well-known Orthodox priest Alexander Men, told Keston News Service that public opinion in Russia runs strongly against foreign religious groups. He said, "If this parliament were given a bill to expel all non-Orthodox and all non-Muslims from Russia, they would vote for it."
The legislation creates problems not only for foreign missionaries but also for long-established Russian faiths, particularly Baptist and Pentecostal groups, who have made independence from the state a priority. The primary vehicle for those restrictions is a "15-year rule": Church-related groups not only must have been operating in Russia since 1982, but they also must have registered with the state prior to that time.
The legislation also requires seminaries and other religious educational centers, like monasteries, to register with the state.
Already, one-quarter of Russia's regional governments have passed laws restricting the rights of minority religions. The Duma's move will give those regional governments even greater authority to restrict or eliminate altogether churches and ministries that do not meet the registration criteria.
Opponents of the bill are protesting not only its content but also its form of passage. After the bill passed its second reading June 18, major amendments-including the 15-year rule-were added, making the third reading on June 23, which garnered the 300-8 vote, a misnomer. Virtually no time for debate in the Duma was allowed after the changes, and the text of the legislation was not made available to the public until after the Duma voted.
The new bill would enable Russia formally and openly to re-establish the Council for Religious Affairs, the state agency that supervised churches during the Soviet period. It would delete "charitable activities" from the already short list of activities authorized for "religious groups." It lists the use of hypnotism as grounds for denying legal registration to a religious group. State authorities in the past have labeled as "hypnotism" such practices as speaking in tongues.
President Boris Yeltsin is expected to receive the legislation for consideration this week, after it has been approved by the upper house of parliament, known as the Federation Council. Deputy Men predicted that Mr. Yeltsin will sign the bill. But other Duma sources disagreed. Vyacheslav Polosin, the Duma religion committee's chief specialist on church-state relations, said that two features of the bill Mr. Yeltsin is especially likely to reject are the 15-year rule and provisions denying non-citizens such basic rights as the right to form even an unregistered prayer group. He is also likely compelled to consider Western reaction.
In Washington, U.S. lawmakers were poised to send a letter written by Sen. Richard Lugar asking the Russian president to veto the legislation. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow reported that President Clinton "personally raised the issue" with Mr. Yeltsin during the June economic summit meeting in Denver, but was not more specific.