Russian Old-Boy Network Threatening Religious Rights

Russia is becoming more capitalistic but less free. Step by step it is moving closer to the "Chinese model" that many Russian leaders openly admire - wooing foreign investors while increasing state control over institutions such as newspapers.

In July, the Russian parliament took another such step by voting to repeal one of the landmarks of the glasnost era, Russia's 1990 law on freedom of conscience. Though President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the parliament's bill, on Sept. 4 he issued a "compromise" version which is as restrictive as the original.

In coming days the parliament is likely to decide whether to insist on the July bill, accept Yeltsin's substitute, or weave the two together. Any version would be a giant step backward in the effort to make Russia a law-governed country.

The 1993 constitution states that all faiths are equal before the law. But both bills would divide religious bodies into two unequal categories. Congregations in the inferior category would have fewer rights than minority believers anywhere outside openly theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia.

Whether a religious group receives privileged rank would depend on the legal status it had 15 years ago and 50 years ago under the Soviet state - a posthumous victory for Brezhnev and Stalin.

Religious congregations in Russia today are somewhat like Jewish synagogues in Germany in the late 1950s: For obvious reasons, the great majority are less than 15 years old. This is true of local congregations in every confession, even those of the Orthodox Christians or Muslims whose roots here go back more than a millennium. Even congregations that have existed continuously for decades, especially among the Old Believers founded in the 17th century or the independent Baptists who arrived in Russia in the 19th century, often lacked legal registration until recently because they refused to compromise with a totalitarian atheist state.

The parliament's bill as well as the president's version would deprive such religious bodies of most of the basic rights needed to function as corporate bodies in society. They would have no guaranteed right to publish religious literature, create schools or mass media, conduct services in places such as hospitals, or receive tax privileges. Many congregations would be reduced to little more than private prayer meetings in their members' homes.

Either bill would artificially strengthen established, centralized hierarchies at the expense of local congregations, even in confessions whose doctrines favor decentralized church structures. A local Protestant church, for example, would have a mighty new incentive to affiliate with the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists rather than with its more independent rivals, because that Union was set up more than 15 years ago as a tool of state control.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow would win a similar artificial advantage over its rivals such as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad - reward for the Patriarchate's servility to the secular authorities both during and since the Soviet era.

The state would gain new leverage to demand similar servility from other religious bodies. The bill would create a new state bureaucracy to review the doctrines and practices of religious bodies applying for registration and to make official judgments about the "inauthenticity" of a church's statements about its own faith.

Specific clauses would make it especially easy to crack down on groups that advocate conscientious objection to military service, or that promote alternative schooling or healing by prayer.

Even without this new law, religious freedom has been shrinking. In Belgorod, about 400 miles south of Moscow, local authorities recently informed a Roman Catholic parish that it could not be registered because it is a "foreign religious organization" - though all the parishioners are Russian citizens, seeking the return of a Catholic church built in the 19th century.

The parish priest told me that local police had even blocked him from entering the city. If Yeltsin signs either of the bills, such outrages are sure to become more frequent and more brazen.

During the Soviet era, religious life here was controlled by an agency called the Council for Religious Affairs, which monitored churches to block activities such as Sunday schools. It reported directly to the KGB. The 1990 law on freedom of conscience formally abolished this agency, but now it is enjoying a de facto revival. More and more provincial governments have new offices specializing in church-state relations, and these offices often employ the same people who used to work for the Council for Religious Affairs.

In Moscow, veterans of the old council on the staffs of Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Orthodox Patriarch Alexei played key roles in drafting Yeltsin's "compromise" legislation now nearing final passage. It is as if the German government still had former Gestapo officers working as specialists in ethnic relations.

The secret-police informers, collaborationist clergy, and xenophobic bureaucrats in the nomenklatura's old-boy network think they have a natural right to dictate to all confessions in Russia. Unless Yeltsin reverses course, they will get it.

* Lawrence A. Uzzell is Moscow representative of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which studies religious life in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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