Thursday, 10 July 1997

PARLIAMENT'S BILL DOES NOT MEET EUROPEAN STANDARDS, SAYS HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH     by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, the largest U.S.-based international human-rights organisation, has released an 8 July letter to PRESIDENT YELTSIN calling on him not to accept the legislation on church-state relations recently passed by the Russian parliament. DIEDERICK LOHMAN, director of the group's Moscow office, told a 9 July press conference that parliament's bill 'in no way meets European standards' and that if Yeltsin signs it Russia's membership in the Council of Europe will become 'senseless'.     The group's appeal to Yeltsin, signed by Human Rights Watch executive director HOLLY CARTNER, called special attention to a crucial amendment which was quietly slipped into the text of the bill between its 18 June 'second reading' and 23 June 'third reading' in the lower house of parliament, and never debated on the floor of either house.  The earlier version would have granted to so-called 'religious groups' - the less privileged of the two new categories of religious association created by the bill - the right to engage in charitable activities and 'other activities' even though these groups would not have the status of 'legal personalities' under Russian law.  But the final version omitted that phrase, giving 'religious groups' only the right to conduct 'worship services, religious ceremonies and rituals'.  The Human Rights Watch letter said that the specific omission of the phrase 'other rights' before final approval 'indicates the clearly expressed intent of the State Duma to limit the activities of religious groups to the performance of worship services, religious ceremonies and rituals'.     Human Rights Watch suggested that the differences between the rights of 'religious groups' and of 'religious organisations' which would be established by the parliament's bill contradict the European Convention on Human Rights - particularly that document's Article 14 on religious discrimination and Article 9 on limits on the free expression of religious convictions.     The letter to Yeltsin also drew attention to the vagueness of some of the provisions in the parliament's bill, warning that these provisions could be 'interpreted by local authorities in such a way as to violate rights and freedom of conscience.  Such lack of clarity in a law is especially dangerous in the conditions of Russia, where as is known in general are laws are poorly implemented, and where local authorities are inclined to interpret laws in a much more limited sense than the legislators intended'.     Human Rights Watch pointed out that all members of the Council of Europe are obliged to observe the European Convention on Human Rights, and noted that Russia is also bound by the religious-freedom provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.     Lohman predicted a 'stormy protest' in Europe if Yeltsin signs the bill.     For the original text of the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki appeal readers may contact the group's Moscow office at e-mail .  NOTE: Quotations from the appeal which appear above have been back-translated by Keston from Russian into English, and may differ slightly from the original.  The original text should be treated as authoritative. (END)       Thursday, 10 July 1997 HUMAN-RIGHTS LEADERS ASSAIL 'LAW AGAINST RELIGION'     by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     'This in fact is a law directed against religion,' said Duma deputy VALERI BORSHCHOV 'It is an illusion to say that it is directed against destructive sects'.  He and other human-rights leaders used a 9 July press conference at Moscow's Sakharov Centre to challenge the image in which the Communist-dominated Russian parliament has packaged its new bill on church-state relations, now awaiting PRESIDENT YELTSIN'S signature. ANATOLI KRASIKOV, head of the Russian Branch of the International Religious Liberty Association, said the proposal was 'written by atheists for atheists'.   The Sakharov Centre distributed an open letter to President Yeltsin calling the controversy over the parliament's bill 'a turning point for the development of the democratic process in Russia'.  The 7 July letter was signed by Borshchov and five other human-rights activists, including the recently hospitalised Duma deputy SERGEI KOVALYOV, who led Russian opponents of the Kremlin's war on Chechnya.     Borshchov said that the parliament's bill contains provisions which ought to concern Orthodox believers as much as Protestants or Catholics.  The Orthodox Church traditionally practises both baptism and confirmation for infants, but the new legislation would prohibit religious associations from 'attracting' minors without their parents' agreement.  In practice, said Borshchov, 'this would mean that an Orthodox priest could not baptise a baby without the written consent of both parents.  There was no such law even in Soviet times'.  He said that he could not understand why the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow had been 'silent' about this provision.     Borshchov also assailed a provision which would allow religious associations to teach religion only to their own 'followers', not to outsiders, and which he said contradicts the missionary and catechetical activities common to all forms of Christianity. 'This is directed against all believers', he said.  Another section, he said, would threaten Christians by allowing the secular authorities to withdraw the registration of religious groups which are thought to break up families. Borshchov cited Christ's call for his disciples to forsake their parents and follow him.     The Moscow writer ALEKSANDR NEZHNI, like Borshchov a practising Orthodox Christian, told the press conference that if the parliament's bill becomes law Russia will become a 'pseudo-Orthodox country' in which Christ is truly followed only by people on the 'margins' of society.     In recent weeks similar criticisms have come from other Orthodox sources.  In an article published on 3 July by the Paris emigre journal 'Russian Thought', Moscow priest GEORGI CHISTYAKOV wrote that the parliament's bill would create a situation in which 'religion must be conditioned by the nationality of the believer. We will now be instructed to confess Orthodoxy not from the strength of our personal choice' but simply by secular law.   Joining Borshchov and Kovalyov as signers of the appeal to Yeltsin were LARISA BOGORAZ, widow of the dissident writer YURI DANIEL; LIUDMILA ALEKSEEVA, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and LEV PONOMARYOV, head of Moscow's Inter-regional Human-Rights Centre. (END)