Wednesday 17 September 1997

DUMA COMMITTEE RUSHES TO APPROVE SLIGHTLY CHANGED RELIGION BILL by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service With almost no discussion, the Russian Duma's committee on religion rushed through slightly changed version of the September 'compromise' bill on church-state relations at a hastily summoned 17 September meeting. Only two members of the committee dissented: deputies VALERI BORSHCHOV  and GALINA STAROVOITOVA. Deputy Starovoitova told Keston News Service that a vote by the full Duma could come as early as Friday 19 September. She said that the bill would be considered under the rules for a 'third reading', allowing little opportunity for debate. Most deputies probably don't even know that the Roman Catholics and other minority confessions are now opposed to the bill, she said. Another Duma source told Keston that there is now 'very little chance' of stopping the bill from becoming law. Only extremely vigorous efforts by both the European Union and North America would give any hope of blocking it at this point, he said. The new changes proposed by PRESIDENT YELTSIN and accepted by the committee leave the latest text looking far more like Yeltsin's September 'compromise' bill than like the one passed by the parliament in July. A Duma source said that most of the changes were merely 'cosmetic'. Among the substantive changes was an amendment allowing only citizens, not non-citizens legally resident in Russia, to create religious organisations. Other amendments would diminish religious organisations' opportunities for access to schoolchildren; would authorise the president to offer clergy broader exemptions from military service; would require expert analysis of churches' applications for state registration to be conducted only by state specialists in religious studies, not by other such specialists; and would omit the preamble's reference to Orthodoxy's role in the 'establishment of Russian statehood.' Tuesday 16 September 1997 RELIGION BILL STALLED IN PRESIDENTIAL APPARAT   ...A source on the religion committee told Keston that it will now be impossible to schedule a Duma vote on Wednesday 17 September as hoped on Tuesday morning.  He said that the Duma's hard-line, communist and ultra-nationalist majority was getting more and more 'unhappy about the delay' and disinclined to accept any further changes.  He thought that the deputies might pull back from compromise and vote in an 'emotional reaction' simply to override the president's veto of the bill which the parliament passed in July.  But he added that the deputies realise that such a reaction could play into the hands of the opponents of both bills, setting the stage for the Constitutional Court to strike down a restrictive law passed over PRESIDENT YELTSIN'S objections.  He also opined that the Federation Council, the parliament's upper house, might well vote to sustain the veto.   Further bad news for supporters of the Loginov bill came as word spread in Moscow that Russia's largest minority Christian confessions - the Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals - are now against that bill, as are the Adventists.  In a sign of dissension within another key minority, two leaders of Russia's Union of Muslims sent Yeltsin an open letter opposing both Loginov's bill and the Duma's.  The 'new version does not remove the questions which disturbed hundreds of millions of Russian Muslims and believers of other confessions', wrote Sheik NAFIGULLA ASHIROV and Duma deputy from Dagestan NADIR KHACHILAYEV.  Declaring that the controversial '15-year rule' as formulated in either version 'violates fundamental human rights and contradicts the Russian Constitution and norms of international law', the two Muslim leaders asked the president to withdraw the bill and make significant changes in it.     Supporters of the Loginov bill countered with a 16 September press conference, in which ARCHBISHOP SERGI of the Moscow Patriarchate was joined by Islamic mufti RAVIL GAINUTDIN, reform Jewish rabbi ZINOVI KOGAN, priestless Old Believer leader ALEKSEI KHVALKOVSKY, and head of the representative body of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia VLADIMIR PUDOV.  The mufti criticised the Catholics for first saying that they were satisfied with the law, then withdrawing their signature.  (In fact, the Catholics - like the Baptist, Pentecostal and Adventist representatives - had not yet seen the Loginov bill's final text when they expressed their support at the beginning of September.) A Keston representative at the press conference asked Archbishop Sergi whether he believes that the '15-year rule' ought to apply retroactively to already existing religious bodies, and whether he considers that this rule in fact will have retroactive effect if the Loginov bill is enacted.  The archbishop declined to answer, saying that he and his fellow clerics had not gathered in order to 'criticise' the text of the law.  Mufti Gainutdin said that the law would not apply retroactively.  In that case, asked Keston, why did METROPOLITAN KIRILL of the Moscow Patriarchate insist on removing draft language from an August draft which would have clearly stated that the 15-year rule will apply only to religious bodies created after the new law goes into effect?  The mufti replied that he had never seen that text. (END) Friday 5 September 1997 Keston obtained a copy of the president's proposed 'compromise' late on 4 September.  The key change is a new passage in Article 27, which now reads as follows:     'Religious organisations which do not possess a document proving their existence on the corresponding territory for at least 15 years are to enjoy the rights of a legal person on the condition of reregistration every year until the expiration of the indicated 15-year period.  During this period these religious organisations are not to enjoy the rights stipulated in point 4 of article 3, points 3 and 4 of article 5, point 5 of article 13, point 3 of article 16, points 1 and 2 of article 17, point 2 of article 18 (as applicable to educational institutions and mass media), article 19 and point 2 of article 20 of this federal law.'     In one respect this change is an improvement from the version of 1 September: it requires proof of a church's 'existence', but not explicitly of its 'LEGAL existence' during the pre-glasnost years.  In effect it seems similar to the standard set in the parliament's July bill: both versions leave at least a ray of hope that local officials could interpret the law so as to accept the concrete existence of religious bodies which were active only underground during the Soviet period, whereas the 1 September text left no such hope. But the new text fails to make clear what kind of 'document' would be considered 'proof'.     In two other respects this new language changes the previous text for the worse.  First, it requires that newly formed or new legalised religious organisations must reregister every year, not every three years.   A Duma source told Keston that it takes about six months to get through the registration process, and that this new language would thus serve as a tool for keeping disfavoured churches constantly entangled in bureaucratic procedures.     The long listing of rights which are specifically denied to such religious bodies in effect removes most of the advantages of 'legal person' status.  It is now even clearer than in the July bill that religious entities falling into this category may not obtain military deferment for clergy; receive tax privileges or state subsidies; host representative bodies of foreign religious organisations; conduct religious ceremonies in places such as hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, or prisons; produce, obtain, import, export or publish religious literature; produce sacramental or other ecclesiastical objects; create educational institutions or mass media; run seminaries; obtain deferment from military conscription for seminarians; or invite foreign guests.