Religion and Russia

Gen. Alexander Lebed has lost no time in asserting himself as President Boris Yeltsin's new national-security adviser, but how much real clout he will have remains to be seen. Assuming Yeltsin wins reelection July 3, which appears likely unless the voter turnout is low, his administration will have a lot of shaking out to do when the politicking ends.

One of the high points of the Russian Constitution - passed on Yeltsin's watch - is its recognition of freedom of religion. Thus it was particularly disturbing to hear General Lebed last week railing against "Western cultural expansion" and "foreign religions." After singling out the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which has been blamed for the gas attack in the Tokyo subway and which has a substantial following in Russia, Lebed took off after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), vowing to outlaw it. He then declared that the only recognized religions in Russia are Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism.

The good general needs some educating. First, he made no mention of Judaism, though Russia has the third-largest Jewish population in the world. Second, he is apparently unaware that there have been Old Believers, Baptists, Mennonites, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and many other groups in Russia since czarist times, some for centuries. Third, there is a vast difference between cults such as Aum Shinri Kyo and established, recognized religions like the Mormons.

Both Lebed and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been pushing behind the scenes to restrict foreign missionary activity in Russia, should study the lessons Western churches learned long ago:

*Freedom of religion is a requirement for a flourishing democracy.

*The best guarantee of freedom for any religious denomination is freedom for all.

*A church that seeks special treatment from the state will end up dominated by the state, to the detriment of the church's interest. The Russian Orthodox Church, long besieged by the Communists, should have learned that long ago.

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