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Yeltsin Believed Likely to Sign Bill Restricting Religious Freedom

A bill that would place restrictions on religious activity in Russia has moved one step closer to becoming law.

Under the Law of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which overwhelmingly passed Russia’s upper house of Parliament last Friday, official status and full rights would be given to a few established denominations — the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

Other “non-traditional”‘ faiths and missionaries would be restricted in their activities.

The lower house overwhelmingly passed the bill last month. In order to become law, the bill must be signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin within two weeks.

Yeltsin reportedly is set to sign it.

The possibility of the new law has left Jews and Jewish experts scurrying to determine its impact on the country’s estimated 750,000 to 1 million Jews.

“It’s not good and it has the potential to be horrible,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Levin added that he has been discussing his opposition to the bill with both Russian and American leaders.

A group of U.S. legislators sent a letter to Yeltsin on Wednesday, urging him to veto the bill.

“This law would create a chilling atmosphere and perhaps even reverse the tremendous steps toward democracy and freedom that Russia has taken over the past several years,” said Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

Russian legislators, however, see the bill as a measure aimed against various “cults” and “sects” that have blossomed in Russia since freedom of religion provisions were adopted seven years ago.

But human rights activists described the measure as discriminatory and contradicting the Russian constitution that guarantees freedom of religion.

“The law is highly discriminatory,” said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki.

It “has a lot of provisions that have nothing to do with protecting Russian society from dangerous sects,” said Lohman, whose group has written to Yeltsin urging him not to sign the bill.

The bill establishes a labrynthine hierarchy equal to any created by the great satirist of Russian bureaucracy, the 19th-century writer Nikolai Gogol.

While Judaism was mentioned as one of Russia’s “traditional faiths,” it is unlikely to receive the same treatment as Russian Orthodoxy and Islam.

To have full rights and be recognized as a “religious organization,” a group needs to prove it has functioned for more than 50 years in more than half of Russia’s 89 provinces.

Other faiths will be dubbed “religious groups” and receive no legal protection.

Fewer than 30 synagogues function in Russia today. Most of them were opened officially only after the fall of communism six years ago.

Since religion was banned under the Soviet regime, the law appears to threaten certain branches of Judaism that are new to Russia such as the Reform movement and the Lubavitch.

It also seems to threaten Catholicism and many Protestant denominations.

“Potentially, the law might create for non-mainstream forms of Judaism the same problems which it will create for non-mainstream forms of Protestant Christianity,” said Lawrence Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute of Oxford, England, which studies religious freedom in former Communist states.

In order to become “religious organizations” and gain higher status, “new” faiths must prove they have been operating in a local area for 15 years. Bestowing this designation is left up to the discretion of local officials.

This could prevent Jewish leaders from speaking out, since their interests would be served by staying on good terms with these officials.

Local officials could also use their increased power as a justification to refuse the return of Jewish communal property.

Under current legislation, Jewish communities can regain their former property, mainly synagogues, that were confiscated by the Bolsheviks.

However, no progress has been made in several communities because of the intransigence of local officials.

This increased power at the local level “is especially troubling given that legislation is generally poorly implemented in Russia, and local authorities tend to interpret legislation more restrictively than it was meant by the legislature,” Human Rights/Helsinki wrote in its letter to Yeltsin.

Although Zinoviy Kogan, the leader of Hineini, Moscow’s Reform congregation, opposes the measure, he said he didn’t believe Reform Jews would be seriously affected by the law.

Berel Lazar, the chief emissary of Lubavitch in Russia, also expressed mixed reactions.

While he is opposed to the Russian state mixing in religious affairs, he welcomes the restrictions the law would place on groups such as Jews for Jesus.

“What they’re doing here is unbelievable,” he said.

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