NEW RUSSIAN LEGISLATION RESTRICTING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?

by Lawrence Uzzell, Keston News Service 6 June 1997 Late afternoon Friday, as Keston's sources predicted earlier this week, the Duma's committee on religion voted to present to the full Duma the new legislation effectively repealing the 1990 law on freedom of conscience. The only member present who opposed the law was VALERI BORSHCHOV. The discussion and vote took place in a two-hour, closed session to which journalists were not admitted. Members of the informal 'working group' representing various religious confessions did not receive the text before today's vote. An especially controversial provision denying the status and rights of a 'legal personality' to new religious groups for a 15- year period remained in the legislation despite the objections of specialists in the Duma's own legal directorate. Some articles will be fine-tuned before it reaches the floor of the Duma, but these are technical amendments only and are not expected to affect the essence of the legislation. A floor vote is tentatively scheduled for 18 June. Both supporters and opponents within the Duma are certain that a majority of deputies will vote for the bill in its current form. Sources in the Duma and the executive branch told Keston that the chances of a Yeltsin veto are good, but far from guaranteed. Even one of PRIME MINISTER CHERNOMYRDIN'S key advisers on church-state relations, who has been a strong opponent of the 1990 law, told Keston that the new situation in its current form is unacceptable. He especially objected to a passage which would require a religious group to produce 100,000 signatures in order to receive 'all-Russian' status. He and other sources pointed out that with their memories of decades of persecution, many Russian believers are still reluctant to proclaim their religious affiliations publicly - and it is a violation of human rights for the state to force them to do so. Generally, the text which became public late this afternoon is even more aggressive in its assault on freedom of conscience and on Russia's own constitution than expected earlier this week. It includes a preamble which places Orthodoxy above Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, and all four above other religions. It states that a local religious organisation can operate only within its own locality. It forbids foreign religious organisations to operate within Russia unless they have invitations from Russian religious organisations. It forbids believers to evangelise minors without the consent of their parents; as BORSHCHOV told Keston after the vote, 'It was my own grandfather who taught me Christianity; this bill would outlaw that.' Keston's Moscow bureau will release a more detailed analysis of the new bill on Monday.(END)