MOSCOW — Members of minority faiths in Russia breathed a sigh of relief yesterday, welcoming President Boris Yeltsin's veto of a bill that would have sharply curbed their religious freedoms.
"The forces of light have prevailed over the forces of darkness," said Igor Diksa, a pastor and Evangelical church leader. "This is very important."
On Tuesday evening, President Yeltsin vetoed a bill that had been passed overwhelmingly by both houses of parliament, discriminating against nontraditional religious groups and favoring the Russian Orthodox Church.
Yeltsin rejected the bill because "many articles ... infringe citizens' constitutional rights and freedoms, establish inequality of different confessions, and contradict Russia's international obligations," he said in a message to the Duma, the lower house of parliament.
The draft law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association" was strongly backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist Party, both worried about the growing influence of foreign churches and emerging indigenous denominations. But it aroused widespread international indignation. President Clinton expressed his concern, the United States Senate threatened to withhold $200 million in aid to Russia if the bill became law, and Pope John Paul II wrote to Yeltsin last week urging a veto.
Advocates of religious freedom in Russia complained that the bill went well beyond its stated intention of protecting citizens from cults and extremist groups such as the Japanese-based Aum Shinri Kyo, which had many followers here until it was accused of a nerve-gas attack on a Tokyo subway in March 1995.
The law would have barred all denominations except those registered at least 15 years ago - when the antireligious Communist state controlled religious affairs - from qualifying as "religious organizations," including Roman Catholics, Mormons, and independent Baptists. They would thus have been denied the right to own property, invite foreign speakers, or open bank accounts, among other things.
"We would have been sent back to the catacombs," said Pastor Diksa, secretary of the inter-denominational Committee for the Defense of Religious Freedom in Russia.
In the draft law, the Russian Orthodox Church, the country's largest religious group, along with Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, is designated as a "traditional" Russian religion exempt from the restrictions.
Yeltsin said a law was needed to "defend the moral and spiritual health of the Russian people and impose reliable barriers against radical sects," and asked for the support of Duma deputies in amending the bill. "We cannot have a democratic society if we violate the Constitution and fail to defend the interests of any minority of our citizens," he warned.
The president's decision drew criticism from his political enemies. "The law is required to limit Western pressure on the minds of Russian citizens," said Communist deputy Viktor Ilyukhin. The veto, he charged, "provides further proof that Russia has become a protectorate of the West."
Though international protests appear to have weighed heavily in Yeltsin's veto, they were not the only factor. "It is not just international pressure as such," says Michael Bourdeaux, director of the Keston Institute in Oxford, England, which monitors religious life in the former Soviet Union. "It is also a question of international agreements that Russia has signed" promising religious freedoms.
The bill is being seen as a landmark in the ongoing struggle between the framers of the 1993 Constitution, under which all religions are equal before the law, and nationalist forces seeking to promote Slav traditions.
Yeltsin's action sends the bill back to parliament where a commission representing the Duma, the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament), and the president will seek to draft amendments.
If no agreement is reached on new wording, the Duma and Federation Council can override the presidential veto with a two-thirds majority, which appears well within their reach. Until the Duma resumes its sessions, probably in September, however, the bill would remain in limbo.