Monday, 23 June 1997

FINAL PASSAGE IN DUMA OF LAW RESTRICTING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service As widely predicted, the Russian Duma's new law on religion sailed through its 'third reading' on Monday, 23 June, in just a few minutes with virtually no debate. Some 300 deputies voted in favour and 8 against. The changes adopted after the 'second reading' of 18 June were supposed to be merely stylistic and editorial, but in fact religion committee chairman VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV made major changes of substance in the text before submitting it for final passage. If the latest version of the bill becomes law, religious bodies not favoured by the state will now have even fewer rights than they would have had under last week's draft. PRESIDENT YELTSIN, also as expected, has yet to reveal whether or not he will veto the bill. But a source at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow told Keston News Service that U.S. PRESIDENT CLINTON personally raised the issue with Yeltsin during the weekend's economic summit meeting in Denver. An expert on minority religions in Russia told Keston that the legislation would create problems not only for foreign missionaries but also for long-established Russian faiths. Baptist human-rights activist VLADIMIR OYVEN said that the parliament's bill would make it harder for independent-minded Baptist and Pentecostal congregations to leave the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, which was founded during the Soviet era and therefore would be eligible for preferential status as a so-called 'religious organisation' rather than as a far less privileged 'religious group'. He acknowledged that many of the independent Baptists prefer in any case to avoid all contact with the state, but the new bill would deny them this option. One of the changes made behind closed doors between the bill's second and third readings would require so-called 'religious groups' like the independent Baptists to submit to the same formal re-registration process as the privileged 'religious organisations', even though they would get none of the advantages of registration. Those which refused could be liquidated. Another of these changes would delete 'charitable activities' from the already short list of activities authorised for 'religious groups'. A well-placed Duma source confirmed on 23 June that the new bill would enable Russia formally and openly to re-establish the Council for Religious Affairs, the state agency which supervised churches during the Soviet period. The 1990 law on freedom of conscience abolished that Council and forbade the national and provincial governments to create any other such executive organ with regulatory responsibility over religious bodies. Since the current bill would explicitly repeal the 1990 law, the explicit revival of the Council would be entirely legal (though not inevitable). Other late changes in the bill elevate the symbolic status of Islam, soften the commitment to Russia's obligations under international human-rights pacts, and narrow parental rights to educate their children according to their own religious views. At least one change softens the bill: religious bodies would now have until the end of 1999, not 1998, to complete the mandatory process of re-registration. The texts of these and other new amendments are available form the Keston Institute. (END)