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Religious Freedom Threatened in Areas of Former Soviet Union

Religious freedom is a threatened commodity in the former Soviet Union. Two former republics, Belarus and Armenia, are considering legislation similar to a bill adopted by the Russian Parliament that would limit religious activity.

The Va’ad, the umbrella organization for Jewish groups in Russia, has urged President Boris Yeltsin to reject the measure, which would deprive religious groups that have been registered in Russia for less than 15 years the ability to own or rent property, hold public worships or do charitable work.

In a letter sent this week to Yeltsin, the Va’ad said the bill fundamentally conflicts with the principles of an open society.

The bill, overwhelmingly approved by parliament earlier this month, has been sharply criticized by Russian and international human rights activists as discriminatory.

The U.S. Senate voted last week to cut foreign aid to Russia if Yeltsin signs the bill into law.

Yeltsin has until the end of next week to decide whether to veto or sign it.

Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, said there is “a lot of pressure on Yeltsin to veto the bill,” though it enjoys wide public support. The Russian Orthodox Church lobbied for the bill.

Roman Spektor, the acting president of the Va’ad, said that the bill is “especially dangerous” to adherents of Reform Judaism and other streams of Judaism that have come to Russia in recent years.

In Belarus, similar legislation may be introduced that would give privileged status to the four “traditional” faiths of the country — Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam.

Other religions would be divided into two categories: “non-traditional” faiths, which would be allowed to function under restrictions reminiscent of those of the Soviet era, and “destructive” faiths, which would be banned outright, according to the Keston Institute of Oxford, England, which monitors religious freedom in former Communist states.

The proposal, which is believed to be sponsored by the Belarussian Orthodox Church, has been sent to the Belarus Parliament.

Similar to the proposed Russian legislation, the Belarussian measure is supposedly aimed at cults and sects that have become active in the former Soviet Union during the past few years.

But human rights organizations believe that the laws would have dangerous ramifications for many religions, including Judaism.

There are about 100,000 Jews out of a total population of 10.2 million in Belarus.

Meanwhile, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has refused to sign amendments to a religion law and sent it back to the National Assembly for further consideration.

The bill would have introduced serious restrictions on religious organizations except for the Armenian Apostolic Church, to which over 90 percent of Armenians belong.

Earlier, Armenia’s Parliament overwhelmingly approved the measure.

It is unclear how the proposed law would affect the status of Armenia’s 500 Jews, who comprise the smallest Jewish community in all the former Soviet republics.

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