Russian President Boris Yeltsin must decide within the next few weeks whether to sign into law a sweeping new bill that would establish the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church and severely curtails the rights of other religions.
The bill passed Wednesday by a huge majority in the Duma, the lower house of parliament. It calls for denominations to prove they have been registered with Russian authorities for at least 15 years in order to receive legal status.
Denominations ranging from Roman Catholics to Protestants to small dissident Russian Orthodox groups led an underground existence during the Soviet era, which ended in 1991. Without legal status under the new law, these churches could not rent space for meetings and services, open bank accounts, publish literature, or bring in foreign speakers.
The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church maintains that such restrictions are necessary to protect against sects such as Aum Shinri Kyo, which was responsible for a 1995 poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
But critics say that as the church faces growing competition from other local Christian denominations and foreign churches, it has responded by championing a kind of religious protectionism.
Ultimately, the bill reveals Russia's uneasiness with notions such as freedom of worship and separation of church and state, particularly because the interests of the Orthodox Church and the ruling authorities have long been intertwined.
"In Russia, there's always been this sense that there is a true faith ... and that religion is not a private choice but a social issue," says Sergei Vurgaft, a deacon in a Moscow church of the Old Believers, which broke with Russian Orthodoxy 300 years ago. "The government has always regulated religious activity, and the Moscow Patriarchate has always been the state religion."
A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate denies that the church is trying to win favored status or drive out other religions.
"There are no limitations on the existence of Protestant groups, and there are no prohibitions against other Orthodox denominations," says Viktor Kalinin, legal counsel and adviser to the Moscow Patriarchate. "Those who say otherwise have an agenda to create scandal."
The bill allows for religious groups to exist informally, but their activities would be sharply limited.
Mr. Yeltsin should receive the bill in about two weeks. It's unclear if he will sign it into law. Diplomatic sources in Moscow say that President Clinton may lobby Yeltsin for a veto when the two men meet in Denver this weekend at a meeting of the leaders of the world's seven most-industrialized nations and Russia. In 1993, Yeltsin vetoed a similarly restrictive religion bill in part due to pressure from the US Congress.
The bill shows the Moscow Patriarchate's determination to preserve its powerful role, critics say. In Imperial Russia, Orthodoxy was the state church. During the Soviet era, the church submitted to Communist Party control, including infiltration by the KGB, in order to function openly.
Since then, the church has remained close to the government. It has used special tax exemptions, for example, to import cigarettes and alcohol duty-free. It has also refrained from criticizing the Yeltsin administration.
Lawrence Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, a British organization that monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet bloc, says that Russians not affiliated with any church are increasingly turning to long-familiar denominations such as the Old Believers, the Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists.
"More and more people are getting fed up with the church leadership being in bed with a corrupt oligarchy," says Mr. Uzzell, himself an Orthodox church member.
The church's unlikely ally in this legislative effort has been the Communist Party, which controls the Duma. The Communists have backed this initiative to shed their past atheist image and to regain control of an important aspect of society, analysts say.
"This is like reliving the past, like during the USSR when they told us, 'We'll show you how to practice religion,' " says the Rev. Viktor Bartsevich, chancellor of Moscow's Catholic Archdiocese.
Mr. Kalinin claims that the draft law was reviewed by representatives of various faiths who signed off on its stipulations. But Fr. Bartsevich says Catholic representatives last saw a draft law in December 1996 that was radically different from this one.
"Of course we can't agree with this project," Bartsevich says. "It goes against a democratic approach to religion."
Donald Jarvis, president of Moscow's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), which has a membership of about 6,500 throughout Russia, adds: "It's clear that whoever backs this law follows this Platonic idea that the republic should be static.
"That's a disastrous view at a time when Russians are facing so many problems and are trying to find different ways to cope with them," he says.