MOSCOW (Jun. 25)
A return to Communist restrictions, or a necessary check against the “cults” and “sects” that have sprung up in recent years?
That’s the question being debated after Russia’s lower house of Parliament passed a law restricting the activities of “non-traditional” faiths and foreign missionaries.
Under the bill, which passed last week with a large majority, official status would be given to a few established denominations — the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
The law must still pass the upper house of Parliament and be signed by President Yeltsin. In 1993, Yeltsin vetoed a similar piece of legislation.
The current measure, known as the Law of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, establishes the primacy of Orthodox Christianity as an “inalienable part of Russian historical, spiritual and cultural heritage.”
Judaism, Islam and Buddhism are considered to be Russia’s “traditional beliefs,” according to the law.
All religions would have to re-register before the end of 1998, including those listed as traditional. To have full rights, they need to prove that they have functioned for more than 50 years in over half of Russia’s 89 provinces.
To qualify as a “sect,” a designation that accords fewer rights, groups must obtain documents from local officials verifying that they have existed in an area for at least 15 years — a difficult, if not impossible, condition for smaller churches that were unable to gain official recognition from the former Soviet government.
All religious groups that cannot prove this would be barred for a trial period of 15 years from basic activities such as holding property or printing literature.
The current law on religious organizations adopted in 1990 allows any faith to register with federal and local authorities.
Vyacheslav Polosin, a Christian expert with the Duma’s Committee on Public and Religious Organizations, explained the reasoning behind the law.
“The Orthodox Church is the biggest church in Russia — it will benefit more. Other churches that have already gained public respect will have guaranteed rights” under the law, Polosin said.
However, critics say the law discriminates against smaller religious minorities and violates free speech.
Lev Levinson, the secretary of President Boris Yeltsin’s Chamber on Human Rights, called the measure “very dangerous and a step backwards for freedom of conscience.”
According to the 1993 Russian constitution, all residents are guaranteed the right to profess any religion or no religion and to “freely choose, possess and disseminate religious or other beliefs.”
The Moscow-based Committee to Defend Freedom of Conscience warned that if the measure becomes law, it would doom religious freedom in Russia.
Some experts say that splinter groups that have broken off from the Orthodox Church, as well as fundamentalist Protestant churches proselytizing in Russia, would be forced to smuggle literature into the country.
The Catholic Church is not mentioned in the law as one of Russia’s established religions, but it would be allowed to continue to operate in Russia on the understanding that it does not proselytize, experts say.
Jewish religious leaders reacted cautiously to the proposed law.
Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, Russia’s chief rabbi and a member of the Russian Cabinet’s Consultative Committee on Religious Affairs, said some sects have been proven to bring moral and physical damage to their followers.
“There have to be some limitations on such cults’ activities,” Shayevich said in a televised interview, referring to Aum Shinri Kyo group, a Japanese cult that made international headlines after a 1995 gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 11.
Other religions that have been repeatedly labeled by the Orthodox Church as “destructive” include the Scientologists, the Unification Church of Reverend Sun-Myung Moon, the Hare Krishnas and Russia’s Mother of God Center.
Zinoviy Kogan, leader of Hineini, Moscow’s Reform congregation, said that “it’s difficult to predict what might happen if various faiths are officially put in unequal positions.”
Mark Levin, the executive director of the Washington-based National Conference on Soviet Jewry, agreed.
“There are many more questions than answers to this law, and to try to predict what will happen if it is passed is impossible.”
Among the questions that appear to remain unanswered about the law are:
Are all of the denominations of a particular religion — such as the Reform and Lubavitch groups within Judaism — protected if their overall religion is accorded rights;
If a group is not accorded official rights, does it have to wait for 15 years or is the amount of time they have already been operating in Russia taken into account?
The large majority in the Duma that favored the bill — the vote was 377 to 5 – – suggests that the bill enjoys wide community support.
The measure was supported not only by the Communists and ultranationalists that constitute the lower house’s majority. Many liberal members of Parliament approved the bill as well.