Thursday, Feburary 13, 1997 8:26:22 PM

PROVINCIAL LAW AGAINST MINORITY FAITHS TURNS INTO PAPER TIGER by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service In a striking example of the quasi-anarchic volatility of church-state relations in today's Russia, one of the harshest of the country's new provincial laws restricting religious freedom is not being enforced.   Local officials in Sverdlovsk oblast, in the Ural Mountains about 900 miles east of Moscow, are refusing to implement the provisions of a four-month-old oblast law (see Keston News Service, October 1996) which imposes stiff registration and reporting requirements on minority confessions.  In some cases officials have even turned away Protestant groups seeking to register and pay the fees required by the new law. A source in Yekaterinburg, the oblast's capital, told Keston on 13 February that local officials in that relatively pro-reform city took the lead in defying the new law, and that their colleagues in Sverdlovsk's rural districts are now following their lead.  What is most surprising, said another Yekaterinburg source, is that none of the administration's top leaders--including its governor, who strongly urged the adoption of the new law last autumn--is now pushing to have it enforced.  The source said that 'there is just no great uproar' over the fact that the measure has effectively become a dead letter.   But the local Orthodox BISHOP NIKON is reportedly now lobbying the oblast Duma to rewrite the law so as to make it workable. Local officials are said to be ignoring the law for three reasons: They fear being sued by minority religious leaders; they find some of the law's provisions to be vague and incomprehensible; and they see the law itself as unconstitutional.  (Russia's 1993 constitution provides that all religious faiths are equal before the law, but the Sverdlovsk statute explicitly exempts six confessions from its requirements.) Paradoxically, at the same time minority religious groups in Sverdlovsk are continuing to experience other difficulties which have nothing to do with the new law--such as bureaucratic obstacles to importing humanitarian aid and to renting public halls for worship. OTHER NEWS: Yaroslavl oblast has chosen not to follow the wave of other provincial governments adopting restrictions on religious freedom.   Authorities in this Volga River province near Moscow, which had been debating one of the most repressive draft laws in all of Russia, have now decided against bringing it to a final vote in the oblast Duma.   ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV, head of the Institute of Religion and Law, has turned pessimistic about the struggle over new legislation in the federal parliament.  The Baptist legal scholar told Keston on 6 February that 'overall it would now be better if no new law were adopted' on freedom of conscience.  Pchelintsev has played an active role in drafting new legislation to amend the 1990 law on religious freedom, and until recently had repeatedly stated that the legislation would not threaten basic rights.  But he now believes that the balance of forces in Moscow has taken a turn for the worse 'because of the general crisis in the country'. Two bishops in the semi-underground Catacomb Orthodox Church have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  BISHOP YEVAGRI, along with two monks who were escorting him on his return from the city of Tomsk in western Siberia to their small monastery in the Tomsk oblast countryside, never showed up at their destination.  BISHOP GERONTI and a companion disappeared almost simultaneously in the St Petersburg area.  A source in the catacomb church told Keston that these were 'two of our most energetic bishops, young but experienced', and linked their disappearance to the state security organs. (END)