Kremlin Backs a New Bill to Curb Church Activities in Russia

Parliament passed a law Friday that would restrict religious freedom; Yeltsin is expected to sign it.

The Kremlin is bracing itself for a wave of international protest following passage of a law on religion that Roman Catholic and Protestant churches say threatens religious freedom.

The Duma, the lower house of parliament, passed the bill on Friday by a vote of 358 to 6, despite complaints from Russia's largest minority denominations that the law unconstitutionally favors established religions, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, over newcomers.

Kremlin officials say the bill is needed to protect Russians from totalitarian cults and extremist groups. Critics fear it will be used against any church that Orthodox authorities see as competition.

Opponents of the bill, which will be passed to the parliament's upper chamber, this week, say they are hoping that foreign pressure will persuade President Boris Yeltsin to reject the draft law.

"A lot depends on low-key, discreet, behind-the-scenes pressure from the West," says a critic of the law. "I think it will take intervention at the highest level. But with the mood in Russia it would be counterproductive to have public protests."

Mr. Yeltsin seems unlikely to veto the new law because his administration drafted it, amending a bill the Duma passed in July. Yeltsin vetoed that bill because he said it violated human rights.

The new law, however, is scarcely improved, opponents say. "In all important respects it is identical to the Duma's initial bill," says Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute in Oxford, England, which monitors religious life in former Soviet states.

The new bill maintains the controversial distinction that favors established religions with national organizations and 15 years of existence over newer groups, which will have fewer legal rights.

The new bill "arouses serious bewilderment," said Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventist leaders in an open letter to Yeltsin last week. "The fundamental violations of the Constitution which you yourself pointed out in rejecting the law have not been removed from the new bill."

The amended bill does go some way toward meeting earlier criticism. Its preamble, for example, no longer equates Christianity exclusively with Russian Orthodoxy. And it allows permanent foreign residents here, not just Russian citizens, to form religious groups.

But it still denies newer churches tax exemptions and prohibits them from publishing, importing, or distributing religious literature, or from organizing educational activities for children.

That violates constitutional guarantees to freedom of information, complains Valeri Borshchov, a member of the Duma's religious-affairs committee who opposes the bill. And in granting legal rights to some churches immediately, while making others wait 15 years from the date of their registration, "the bill is still anticonstitutional," he argues.

Kremlin officials insist that the bill can be interpreted more liberally than its critics suggest. And although the law forbids young churches from importing religious literature, or inviting foreign preachers, "it is a question of method," argues Ruslan Orekhov, head of the president's legal office. "Church members can do these things as individuals."

If Yeltsin signs the bill, it seems certain to be challenged in the Constitutional Court.

"Any points of law can be appealed or contested in the courts and that will happen," predicts presidential adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov.

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