Wednesday, 25 June 1997

OPPONENTS OF NEW LAW ON RELIGION CITE PROCEDURAL FLAWS by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service The Russian Duma's proposed new law on religion, its opponents charge, shatters the rule of law not only in its contents but in the manner in which it was passed. Some have suggested that even if the parliament's bill were consistent with the Russian Constitution, PRESIDENT YELTSIN would be justified in vetoing it on procedural grounds alone. Opponents claim changes made in the bill between its 'first reading' in July 1996 and 'second reading' in June 1997 were so sweeping that in effect they turned it into a new bill which should have been brought up for a new 'first reading'. They also point out that VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV, the Communist chairman of the Duma's religion committee, made further substantive changes between the bill's passage by his committee on 6 June and its presentation to the full Duma for its 'second reading' on 18 June - and then again between that 'second reading' and the bill's 'third reading' on 23 June. Many of these changes have serious implications for human rights. Most strikingly, the bill adopted behind closed doors by Zorkaltsev's committee on 6 June added the controversial requirement - completely unparalleled in the July 1996 text - that a religious body must have been registered by the state for 15 years before it may begin to conduct a wide range of activities such as publishing or owning real estate. But there were also other, less visible changes. For example, as compared with the 1996 text, the draft presented for 'second reading' this month narrowed the rights of churches to teach their doctrines, guaranteeing them in articles 5 and 6 only the right to teach religion to their own followers, not to outsiders. Protestant legal scholar VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKI charged in an analysis released by Moscow's Christian Legal Centre on 19 June that this change 'contradicts Article 28 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right of everyone freely to disseminate his religious convictions'. Such amendments did not end with the 18 June 'second reading'. Between then and the 23 June 'third reading' Zorkaltsev removed a key phrase from the article on so-called 'religious groups', widening even further the gap between their rights and those of the more favoured 'religious organisations'. Under the newer version of Article 7, these groups no longer have the right 'to conduct charitable and other activities which do not require the legal capacities of a legal personality'. In a June 24 interview with Keston News Service a spokesman for the Moscow office of Helsinki Watch called this 'an extremely significant change', one which removes one of the last possibilities for 'religious groups' to function as organised social entities. But ANDREI LOGINOV, head of Department for Cooperation with Political Parties and Social Associations in President Yeltsin's staff and a key supporter of the new bill, said in a June 25 interview with Keston that he had not even been aware of this change until Keston's Moscow representative pointed it out to him. An aide to Duma Deputy VALERI BORSHCHOV, the only member of the committee on religion to vote against the bill, told Keston News Service on 24 June that according to articles 105 to 110 of the Duma's own formal rules, adopted by the newly created parliament in March of 1994, a substantively new bill may not be brought to the floor as the 'second reading' of an earlier bill. The rules also stipulate, he said, that only editorial and stylistic changes may be made between a bill's second and third reading. But in the case of the new law on religion, he observed, even its name was changed before the 'second reading' - from 'Amendments and Additions to the Law on Freedom of Religion' to 'Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations'. Ryakhovski's analysis also noted that the new bill's Article 7 imposes yet another new burden on so-called 'religious groups'. 'Though deprived by this very legislation of the opportunity to gain the rights of a legal personality', he wrote, 'religious groups at the same time are obliged to inform the local secular authorities about their formation and their activities. This entails direct involvement of the state into the private religious sphere, insofar as citizens coming together for joint prayers will now be required to report to the appropriate state organs on their deeply private religious lives not connected with their civic or legal positions. This provision contradicts Articles 14 (separation of church and state), 28 (freedom of religion), and 23 (inviolability of private life) of the constitution.' Ryakhovski also objected to the new bill's Article 8, which authorises the state organs, with advice from 'the appropriate religious associations', to block local or regional religious organisations from conducting activities outside their own territories. It is 'completely obvious', he wrote, that the so- called 'all-Russian religious organisations' will thus be given the power to help set limits on the activities of their competitors - violating the constitutional principles of separation of church and state and of the equality of all confessions before the law. (END)