Friday, 18 July 1997

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

POPE JOHN PAUL II has written to Russian President BORIS YETLSIN
to express his 'serious concern' about the proposed legislation
on freedom of conscience and religious associations. The deputy
director of the Vatican Press Office, FATHER CIRO BENEDETTINI,
confirmed on 17 July that the Pope had written a 'personal
letter' to the Russian president on 24 June.

The Vatican released the text of the letter, the original of
which was in French, late in the afternoon of 17 July. The
Vatican Information Service also released an English translation.
It is not clear why there has been a delay in releasing the
letter, although the Pope may have wanted to give the Russian
president time to consider it before making it public.

The letter speaks about the original draft of the bill, submitted
to the Duma on 15 June. 'This text, very restricitve in relation
to the 1990 law on "religious confessions", if it were to be
adopted, would constitute, for the Catholic Church which is in
Russia, a real threat for the normal development of her pastoral
activities and even for her survival,' the Pope wrote.

'The Holy See has noted with regret that, in this text, no
mention is made of "traditional religions", among which
Catholicism has always been numbered, and that not even once is
the Catholic Church cited.

'If the principle of freedom of religion, which can be practised
individually and in community, is clearly affirmed, as well as
the equality of religious communities before the law, other
especially precise dispositions considerably reduce its scope.

'The dispositions of Chapter II, quite especially, lead one to
think that the Russian civil authorities wish to equate the
Catholic Church with a foreign community, without any
consideration for her presence and centuries of activity in
Russia, or for her specific hierarchical organization.'

Pope John Paul reminds President Yeltsin of Russia's obligations
made in the final document of the Vienna CSCE conference in
January 1989 to respect the right of religious communities to
organise themselves in accordance with their own hierarchical and
institutional structure.

The Pope expresses confidence that President Yeltsin will 'know
how to be discerning' and will take 'opportune decisions' to
ensure no 'legal or administrative obstacle' hinders the
religious life of Russia's Catholics. He hopes a new draft of the
law can be drawn up which will guarantee religious peace' in the
great Russian nation'. 

The Pope's approach to President Yeltsin came just one day after
the controversial bill - which many in the Catholic Church fear
would hamper its work in the Russian Federation - was passed by
Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma. As reported
extensively in previous Keston News Service articles, it was
subsequently approved by the upper house, the Federation Council,
and now awaits a decision from President Yeltsin. (END)