A group of leading American clergy, serving as international observers to Russia’s presidential elections, has said all the major candidates whom they met in Moscow favor freedom of religion.
The delegation of religious leaders was in the former Soviet state to learn the personal – as well as the official – views of Russian presidential candidates on “religious freedom, freedom of conscience, their attitude toward religious minorities,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York, the head of the group.
Schneier also is the president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an organization that has sent observers to the Russian elections since the 1993 poll for the Parliament.
A number of populations around the world, including the Jewish community, are keeping a close eye on Sunday’s elections. Anywhere from 600,000 to 2 million Jews live in Russia, and some of the candidates have either expressed anti- Jewish sentiments or have ties to those who have.
The monitoring group did not meet with the rabidly anti-Semitic Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
But one of the contenders with whom the delegation did meet was Communist Gennady Zyuganov, whose policy is militantly anti-Western and who would like to see a crackdown on minority rights and emigration.
Zyuganov told members of the delegation that if he wins, he would guarantee the religious freedom “of all traditional religions on Russian territory,” raising the question of which religions would get that guarantee.
Schneier, however, was confident that it would be impossible even for the Communists to curtail the freedom of religion that now exists in Russia.
Schneier, who is on his 51st working visit to Russia since 1965, said that in recent years, a favorable attitude toward religions has prevailed among the country leadership.
“Moscow city Mayor [Yuriy] Luzhkov helping to build a matzah factory or attending the dedication of a new synagogue – these are examples of politicians’ attitude toward religious communities,” he said.
Still, members of the ecumenical delegation admitted that the future status of religious minorities in Russian will depend on the outcome of the election.
The ecumenical group also met with liberal economist Grigoriy Yavlinsky and Georgiy Satarov, the top aide for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whom polls show as being in the lead.
Russian Jews have expressed fear about the possibility of Communist leader Zyuganov winning the election, even though he continues to trail in the polls.
“The election is propelled by the great sense of nationalism,’ Schneier said, adding that for the Communist Party “the ideology of communism has been replaced with nationalist fervor.”
Addressing the fears expressed by some Russian Jews in recent months, Schneier said: “Heightened nationalism historically represents a certain amount of insecurity for any Jewish community wherever.”
Schneier said all the candidates are courting religious communities, which constitute a significant part of the 100 million-person Russian electorate.
“Every candidate wants God on his side,” the rabbi said.
Other members of the American interfaith delegation included Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, the ecumenical officer of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, primate of the Armenian Church of America, and Robert Barry, former deputy assistant secretary of state.